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Late 19th century, China, and healer/kung fu master Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) is in continual conflict with the ever-changing world around him. As he battles, both personally and patriotically, against subjugation from Imperial forces that are threatening to Westernise China and abolish the old ways, Fei Hung must also defeat wandering martial arts master Iron Robe Yim (Yee Kwan Yan) after he challenges his fighting style and honour, and stop a factional militia group that is running the protection racquets in the towns when they kidnap his Aunt Lee (Rosamund Kwan) and try to sell her into slavery.

Review by Craig Miller
A wise and terribly gimmicky DVD reviewer once philosophised: "The birth of a new wave of cinema begins with a single movie."

Ok, so the terribly gimmicky DVD reviewer is me, and I didn't so much "philosophise" as argue the point with my mates, but the movie is a genre piece of the highest order, the defining Once Upon a Time in China.

It's not very often you can look at cinema history, take a movie and say "THAT is a turning point for the genre!" but with Once Upon a Time in China the birth of a "new wave" of martial arts action flicks began.

Spawning countless sequels and revitalising a genre, director Tsui Hark takes a grand historical epic about times of change and combines it with personality, flair, political/revolutionary undertones and action sequences that make your hair curl!

This is a film of contrasts and a look at the western movement. It's East meets West, kung fu vs bullets and old vs new! The story is complex and hard to follow in places (it can get confusing when someone's honour is challenged every five minutes), but Hark builds the story well and knows exactly what the crucial elements of his picture are. In a word: Fights!

Jet Li is exhilarating as the master of all things kung fu (his character Wong Fei-Hung is a Cantonese folk legend who lived at the turn of the 19th century and has been the subject of hundreds of films), and his fight sequences and choreography in this picture are truly some of the best ever put on celluloid. The aerials, acrobatics and wire work are breathtaking, and the film's finale, a warehouse ladder fight between Li and fellow martial arts guru Yee Kwan Yan, is something that everyone must see.

There's the occasional low patch and the typical genre elements of over-worked slapstick gags, hokey love story and crazy comic sensibilities but, generally speaking, these only serve to deliver entertainment on more than one level and, really, what Hong Kong martial arts extravaganza is complete without them.

Even though this is just one of several kung fu classics marketed under a new Hong Kong Legends label, Universal has not been content on just releasing these titles and has decided to add a little flavour to the extras package as well.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, for those who love their martial arts action with 'authentically' dubbed English, you are extremely well catered for. The film works well in the badly dubbed Cantonese format and, even though there is still the original subtitled version included, for me, I can't bring myself to indulge in the kung fu experience without the hokey English dubbing. It's a guilty pleasure!

Discussing the ins and outs of Hong Kong cinema and all its chop socky splendour, film expert and world renowned authority in the field of Chinese action flicks Bey Logan is right at home on the DVD's enlightening commentary. Teaming up with actor Mark King, whose views on the genre are much less complimentary, the two offer up info on everything from the film's shoot (King obviously has first-hand information having played the film's wicked British General) to the intricacies and changes of Hong Kong cinema over the years. It's a concise account of a movie and a genre and anyone with a keen interest in cinema history will find it most compelling.

The interview gallery features about 20 minutes with actors Jet Li and Yam Sai Kwoon and it's time well spent. Both Kwoon and Li chat candidly about their fascinating lives to date and have much to say about their high-energy martial arts styles, preparing for physical roles, adapting fighting styles for the movies and the perils of fame.

Another great addition is the promotional gallery for other DVD titles in the Universal Hong Kong Legends series. Containing a great range of trailers and DVD specs on a selection of titles, its 100% promo, but an enjoyable look at some wonderful kung fu flicks.

For most, the comic book antics of kung fu crazies might seem like a shallow, predictable adventure. But that's far from the truth. To completely immerse yourself in a visually rich production like Once Upon a Time in China is a truly rewarding, culturally eye-opening experience.

Published March 3, 2005

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(Hong Kong, 1991)

Wong Fei-hung

CAST: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Yee Kwan Yan, Steve Tartalia, Mark King


RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

PRESENTATION: Anamorphic widescreen 2.45:1, Dolby Digital 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary, Animated biography showcase, Photo Gallery, Interview gallery, Trailers.


DVD RELEASE: February 23, 2005

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