Once Upon a Time in China / Tsui Hark / 1991 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Creative and exciting action; Themes of tradition and modernity
Side Effects: Tangential narratives and shifting focus

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Masterfully choreographed and directed action sequences surround an equally masterful historical epic.

The thematic ambitions of Tsui Hark’s seminal Once Upon a Time in China are evident from the beginning. It’s overture and subsequent introductory sequences are rife with references to the foreign influences manipulating 19th century China, and to the inexorably changing times. Modernity is fast approaching, and in this respect Tsui’s film is similar to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which the construction of the railroad represents the last gasp of the Wild West. And while these showdowns emphasize fists over six-shooters, much of the sentiment and style of the Western can be felt here.

In this film we see foreign forces from France, America and England meddling in Chinese affairs, both politically and culturally, and profiting from the misery of the commoners. We see fancy western restaurants with unfamiliar cutlery, insistent Christian missionaries and garish continental fashion. There’s a comic tone to the Chinese befuddlement over this strange new culture, but the danger of this modern western presence within an ancient eastern tradition is presented via two potent symbols: the camera and the gun.

Both the camera and the gun emit plumes of smoke and flashes of light, and both are deadly: a bird is fried by a flashbulb early on, and scores of Chinese are gunned down by barbarous foreigners later in the film. But cameras and guns are deadly in other, less literal ways as well. As Jet Li‘s martial arts master and folk hero Wong Fei Hung and his rival come to realize, “kung fu cannot fight guns.” In the new society overtaking their familiar streets more and more each day, kung fu isn’t as necessary to their survival as, say, western customs and courtesies, or a cruel, Machiavellian cunning. While martial arts temples and traditions burn and fade, new buildings are erected, and “progress” will not stop for Wong and his disciples.

While these themes run both latently and explicitly throughout the film, its middle section wanders a bit, focusing instead on Wong’s street rivalries and beefs with the local government official. This material is perhaps less resonant, but it does serve to deepen the film’s central characters, all of whom are given surprising emotional depth and moral shading by the end. (For example, So’s complicated relationship with western civilization and Foon’s changing allegiances.)

The leisurely space of this middle act also helps demonstrate Tsui’s confidence blending of classical and modern film grammar. Just like the film’s setting, Once Upon a Time in China is poised between two worlds, and Tsui demonstrates remarkable skill and fluency with both. Fight scenes and dramatic dialogues alike are informed by principles of visual storytelling as old as the silent period. For example, simple camera movements and functional edits to close-ups and insert shots carry the viewer’s eye across the screen and build small-scale narratives within individual sequences. But Tsui is also a modern filmmaker, operating within a vibrant national cinema open to expressionist flourishes and experimentation. As a result, Tsui uses techniques like canted angels and slow motion to add colors and textures to the film. It’s 134 minutes, but it’s a varied and exciting 134 minutes.

All of this thematic and visual sophistication is to say nothing of the film’s breathtaking fight sequences, among the pinnacle of its genre. Jet Li’s choreography is more informed by the fantastical and gravity-defying traditions of the wuxia genre than Jackie Chan’s style, but both performers emphasize a creative exploration of their physical environment to stunning effect. Stages, ladders, chains, crates and more become essential props and weapons, keeping action sequences fresh and evolving. The ladders used in the film’s climax are a perfect examples: they criss-cross the set, but Wong and his adversary spar by flipping the ladders to travel in opposite directions, changing the spatial dynamics of the fight with each movement like the twist of a Rubik cube.

By the end of the film, Wong learns to live with some of the forces altering his country. He remains a bastion of tradition, but he’s wise enough to accept the things he cannot change. Once Upon a Time in China sees Tsui in a similar position as an artist. With one eye towards the formalism and genre traditions of the past and one on the experimentation of the future, Tsui keeps the spirit of classical filmmaking alive with a new, modern context.

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