When it comes to Wuxia martial-arts action, Once Upon a Time in China (OUATIC) is considered a true classic and with just cause. You'll have a hard time finding a better example of what Jet Li is truly capable of on-screen (except maybe Fist of Legend, but this is no place to get into that never ending debate). Wong Fei-Hung would've been proud.
The story takes place in 19th century Foshan, with the legendary Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) coming under the realization that China will no longer be the same with foreign forces (American, British, and French) beginning to increase their presence within the region. He is approached by the general of the Black Flag Army in order to recruit and train a 'militia' of men to protect the area from these potential new threats. Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) returns from America almost completely "westernized", much to the dismay of Wong Fei-Hung. After being back in China for awhile, Aunt Yee (not really Wong's Aunt) begins to realize how much she loves her country and just how much damage the foreign element is causing. We then meet Foon (Yuen Biao), who is a member of the Chinese Opera who arrives in town only to be harassed by Sha Ho and his gang who are extorting money from local businesses. Foon falls in love with Aunt Yee, but of course she has eyes for Wong Fei-Hung and wants nothing to do with him. Feeling alone and heartbroken Foon finds refuge with Master Yim (Shi Kwan-Yen), a vagabond who wants to defeat Wong in order to claim status as the best martial artist in town. If Master Yim succeeds, he'll be able to open his own school, which people will want to join because Yim will the best. Due to some unfortunate proceedings with the local authorities, Wong is placed under house arrest, which is a perfect time for Yim to make his move. Wong refuses to fight Yim due to his situation and thus everyone thinks Yim defeated Wong. The Sha Ho gang takes up with Yim and promises to help fund the building of his new martial-arts school. To make matters worse, the Sha Ho gang and Yim form the unholy alliance with the Americans (and their guns), who are sending Chinese women to America for slave labor, in exchange for riches and protection against Wong Fei-Hung. After some dastardly deeds take place, Wong Fei and two of his most faithful recruits, Porky (Kent Chang) and Bucktooth So (Jacky Cheung), are off to rescue Aunt Yee and finish off Master Yim.
Even though the story is based on historical events, the plot itself seems rather over-stuffed with ideas coming from every direction. This results in the film running at about two hours and twenty minutes. That's a bit long for a martial-arts movie. However, Once Upon a Time in China tries to tell a deeper story about the changing social and political climate of China at that time with some fantastic fights throughout to keep you entertained, but it really felt like the opposite. Running-time and an overly busy storyline aside, by no means should you pass on OUATIC if you haven't seen it. Even if you could care less about the story being told, the fight scenes alone are worth the viewing. Jet Li is excellent as Wong Fei-Hung. He displays an array of emotions portraying a man who you can't help but think was really someone special. Yuen Biao, as Foon, doesn't really come across as the goofy sidekick character that was probably envisioned at first (which would explain him being replace in part 2), but he does a good enough job, and we all know the boy can seriously throw down.
Once Upon a Time in China is one of those movies that you really can't help but like despite it's imperfections. The story is interesting enough without being boring, and the actors all do a fine job in their roles. The real reason to watch though, and let's be honest here, is to see Jet Li beat the crap out of countless bad guys. If you aren't a fan of the Wuxia, almost fantasy like martial-arts (think Crouching Tiger or House of Flying Daggers), than it might not be your cup of tea. However, you owe it to yourself to watch OUATIC at least once, and chances are it'll be in your DVD collection shortly after. (Lee)
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