There are a surprisingly small number of martial arts films on the list, although basically all the big ones are covered. Even still, it’s films like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China that make me wonder if there still may be too many. I wouldn’t argue against the inclusion of this one, but with other films like Peking Opera Blues, Project A 2, Five Deadly Venoms, Enter the Dragon, and Shaolin Master Killer all on the list, I’d find it hard to make an argument for it. Now, for what it was designed to do (be a vehicle for star Jet Li and his kung fu prowess), it succeeds. It’s just all the other elements that make up a film that are rather slipshod here.
Jet Li is Wong Fei-hung, a Chinese folk hero who doubles as the titular character in the film’s original Chinese. Wong is a martial arts master in a small Chinese town currently at odds with the foreign Americans and British men who are there to colonize for their own ends. That’s about as far as a regular plot summary as I’m going to get, because the center of the plot of this one was all over the place, jumping from one narrative core to another so fast that one wonders if this is the stitched-together remains of a number of scripts, all combobulated together into some sort of Franken-screenplay. There’s a young wannabe disciple who ends up falling in with the wrong master, there’s the wrong master himself who wants to open up his own martial arts school and must defeat Wong Fei-hung first to do so, there’s the conflict between Wong and the Shaho Gang, there’s a plot thread with the foreigners kidnapping and shipping Chinese women to other countries as slaves; all of these and more are the central focus of the film for at least a small portion of the running time. Not to mention that there was an awful lot of the plot that seemed cut and thrown together to satisfy the needs of the narrative, and not because it was a logical progression of events. The local police force, for instance, had an unhealthy and irrational hatred for Wong Fei-hung, and most of the conflict in the middle portion of the film was thanks to them and their odd need to arrest and/or kill Wong. Plus, there was a romantic subplot involving one of Wong’s peers, whom he calls Aunt 13 (one of the weirdest nicknames for a character I’ve ever heard), that was needless save for an obligatory damsel-in-distress trope put into play in the third act. And it’s not just the story that leaves a lot to be desired; the technicals aren’t all that great either, or at least they look nice but aren’t properly constructed or put together. I wasn’t particularly a fan of the visual style of this one, mostly because it felt too dated to be appropriate for a film made in 1991; apparently Hark as a director is still somewhat stuck in the 80s. Hark is also a big fan of camera movement, even unnecessary camera movement. There were so many shots at a low canted angle where the camera would suddenly swoop in one direction, stopping on some person or character of interest, that it almost became a drinking game whenever one would appear.
Thankfully, the film’s main selling point, the kung fu action sequences, are by far the highlight of the film, particularly one near the end involving a metric shit-ton of ladders that Wong and his rival sensei use to fight on top of and around with each other. But, as I’ve said in the past, one particularly exemplary sequence does not a wholly satisfactory film make. Many regard this as one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. To those people, I would ask just how many martial arts films they have seen (that aren’t sequels in a long series or remakes of originals). This was decent as an action flick, but in every other regard this film pretty much fails at being a film. It’s all just an excuse to throw up some amazingly choreographed fight sequences. But, then again, I can’t really blame it for doing so, considering what people will accept as entertainment in the face of absolutely horrible storytelling ability.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10