Thursday, February 10, 2011

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark)

Jet Li as the legendary Wong Fei Hung.

Highly kinetic martial arts film in terms of execution and framing that even the slower scenes look exhausting. Jet Li starred as the legendary Wong Fei Hung (previously played by Jackie Chan in "Drunken Master"), an herbalist/martial artist/patriot whose principles and nationalistic standpoint were caught off-guard by the sudden wave of American culture and western arrogance.

The film, directed by Tsui Hark, portrayed the Chinese as highly gullible people who will never back out from a fight yet will consider alien words that describe America (such as 'Gold Mountain' and 'gold dusts in the rivers') as absolute truths. Yes, it's chief villain were basically Americans (with irritating voices and performances) but never the entirety of the country's mores. The root of the conflict was not mainly a cultural clash, nor a friction created by opposite viewpoints. "Once Upon a Time in China", although at certain times heading into something as close as that, is not a propaganda film. It's a film that rendered illegalities at its most chaotic, and how a country bound in simplicity such as 19th century China would respond to such: with utter defiance, and some kicks and punches on the side to further the point.

There's no question about Jet Li's ability in fight sequences, but in his acting range, there sure is. I see him do flashy moves, repel fights, engage in some himself, rescue people, assist sick people with his herbal know-hows, but I never saw him do all of it as Master Wong. He goes through the more demanding scenes, actor-wise, with facial expressions that suggest indifference. We can't blame him. He's an action star. But I sure would have preferred it if he had brought some Jackie Chan-type enthusiasm into the character. The kicks landed perfectly, the punches were thrown with accuracy, I even felt the abundant patriotism in the air. But Wong Fei Hung, amid his highly impressive fight scenes and ballistic fingers (that match perfectly with some lead balls), is sorely missing both in presence and in character. And where's some drunken boxing?


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