Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung): Special Collector's Edition (1991)

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Released 22-Feb-2005

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Martial Arts Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Bey Logan (Hong Kong Cinema Expert) And Mark King (Actor)
Gallery-Photo
Biographies-Cast-Jet Li - Animated Biography
Theatrical Trailer-2
Interviews-Cast-Jet Li
Interviews-Cast-Yam Sai-kwoon
Trailer-Armour of God, Big Boss, Fist of Fury
Trailer-Game of Death, Iron Monkey
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1991
Running Time 127:59
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (103:00) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Hark Tsui
Studio
Distributor
Fortune Star
Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Jet Li
Biao Yuen
Rosamund Kwan
Jacky Cheung
Steve Tartalia
Kent Cheng
Jonathan Isgar
Yee Kwan Yan
Mark King
Case ?
RPI $29.95 Music Romeo Daz
James Wong


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Auto Pan & Scan Encoded English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

This is the first of a series of six films produced and/or directed by Tsui Hark and featuring the character Wong Fei Hong. The original Cantonese title of this film is simply Wong Fei Hong, but for English language consumption the title was changed to one that is resonant of two films made by Sergio Leone. The first three and last of the series star Jet Li Lian Jie as the title character.

Though the exact date is not specified, I would guess that the story is set during the 1870s or 1880s, when the western US railroads were being built by primarily Chinese labour. Kung fu master Wong Fei Hong returns to his native Canton to take over the Lam Chi Bo clinic and the local Black Flag militia. The city is in chaos not only due to the work of Chinese gangs such as the Sha Ho, but also because of foreign invaders from Britain and America whose ships lie in the harbour. The Americans are portrayed here as the worse of the two, probably because they weren't administering Hong Kong at the time the film was made. The presence of foreigners is leading to the corruption and extinction of Chinese beliefs and customs, which prompts Wong to take responsibility for maintaining his native traditions.

Wong finds himself beset on all sides. He beats up the Sha Ho gang when they try to extort money from local shopkeepers, and they vow revenge. The local police chief seems to have it in for Wong, believing him to be simply another gang leader. There is a mutual attraction between Wong and his 13th Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan Chi Lam), who is not really a relative, but she is western influenced, wearing a European dress and using a camera. Fallen kung fu master Iron Robe Yim (Yam Sai-kwoon) decides that to make a name for himself he will challenge Wong's martial arts. And the foreigners are also conspiring to retain their slave trade and destroy the righteous Wong.

One reaction to this film that viewers new to the Hong Kong experience may experience is confusion. There are many characters, plots and subplots, and the motivations of the characters are not always explained clearly. The charitable way of addressing this is to point out that the film was made for a Chinese audience, who would already be familiar with the characters and situations. Thus there are narrative shortcuts that incidentally make it difficult for a Western audience to understand. On the other hand, Hong Kong films of the 1990s were made very quickly and with less attention to story structure and logic than would be ideal. This film was made on a large budget and took more time to film than normal, but by and large Tsui Hark's films are less immediately accessible to a non-Chinese audience than, say, those of John Woo or Jackie Chan. This was probably the first Hong Kong martial arts film from the modern (that is, post-Bruce Lee) era that I saw, and I found it both confusing and impressive. Seeing it again after a decade of seeing literally dozens of similar films, it makes more sense but still seems all over the place. The tone varies from grimly serious to comic to romantic in the space of a few frames.

One major theme of the film seems to be the corruption of Chinese culture by foreign influences. The foreigners live a luxurious lifestyle isolated from the locals. They have brought in their own customs and refuse to attempt to understand the Chinese or consider them as equals. When some firecrackers are set off during a lion dance, the foreigners think that they are being shot at and return fire, and this lack of understanding also affects the Chinese. They believe the tales of gold and wealth available in the West, and the nave and poor Chinese are seduced into signing up for hard labour.

Also seducing the locals are the Jesuits who walk the streets spreading the Gospel (and paradoxically singing the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah, a Protestant work). They are much less successful. The Chinese people themselves seem torn between the old ways and the lure of wealth. The gangs seek to extort money from merchants, while they have no compunction in selling women to the Americans as whores. Even the Chinese prostitutes look down on poverty, sneering at two men sharing the same bowl of noodles. Such an atmosphere can corrupt even a supreme martial artist like Yim, who finds himself without an income despite his talents.

Naturally, being a wu xia movie, there is a lot of martial arts work. At the beginning, the action is reasonably realistic, though it does contain comic elements. As the film progresses (and the martial arts choreographer changes) the kung fu is raised to superhuman proportions by the use of wires. Though not quite as unrealistic as the stunts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is quite clear that no unaided human could perform most of the feats depicted here. Maybe realism is not the point of the film, but I have always found the plausible depiction of kung fu fighting more entertaining and exciting than wire-assisted acrobatics. You can see the wires in several scenes, especially during the closing battle between Wong and Yim. You can also see the influence of American cinema on Tsui Hark's direction, with fast editing to make the action more frantic.

While the story is essentially a fictional one, Wong Fei Hong was a real person. He was a student of the kung fu style Hung Kuen or Hung Gar, which traces its lineage back to the famous Shaolin Temple school, and was a master of the "shadowless kick". This form of kung fu also involved training in Chinese medicine, which explains why Wong runs a clinic. Wong was at one stage attached to the army and was also an assistant governor of Fujian Province. After a failed uprising he retired to run a Chinese medicine shop called Po Chi Lam, which had been established by his father. After his death in 1924 at the age of 77 a series of popular novels created the legend of Wong Fei Hong, much as the American west was mythologised in fictional works about Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill. These then led to a long series of films about Wong's adventures running from 1949 to 1981, all starring Kwan Tak Hing. While the number of films in this series varies from source to source, according to most Kwan appeared in 99 such films plus a television series. My researches indicate a number closer to 78, but records of these films are not easy to come by. In any case, that's a lot of movies. Jackie Chan starred as the younger Wong in Drunken Master in 1978, a role which he reprised in a 1994 sequel. There have been countless other incarnations, and I would not be surprised if Wong Fei Hong was portrayed as a principal character more often in films than any other real-life figure.

Jet Li's performance as Wong is very impressive. Apart from bringing some much needed dignity to the role, his acrobatic skills are extraordinary, although it is not always him we see in these sequences, as while filming the scene where he descends from the restaurant balcony using a umbrella he severely injured his knee. Again, given the use of wires and rapid editing during the fighting sequences, we do not see all that he is capable of, kung fu wise. Another near-legendary Hong Kong martial artist, Yuen Biao, appears in the smaller role of Foon. According to the audio commentary on this disc Biao was misled into thinking he was playing the leading role in this film, one reason why he does not appear in the sequels. Adding to the starry cast is Kent Cheng Juk Si as Porky Lam, a character based on the real-life Lam Sai Wing, a student of Wong known as The Magnificent Butcher. Like Wong, Lam was a major martial arts figure (and pork butcher) whose life has been mythologised through film.

Rosamund Kwan is ethereally lovely as Aunt Yee, and gives a fine performance as well. Jacky Cheung Hok Yau takes a break from dumb comedies to play Buck Teeth So, though he is virtually unrecognisable due to the heavy makeup he wears. There is a brief appearance by veteran Wu Ma as Great Uncle. Despite what some sources such as the IMDb and other reviews indicate, neither Simon Yam nor Wang Yu are in this film.

My comments about the coherence of the story and believability of the action should not deter anyone from seeing this film. It has an energy that is contagious, and the theme of the corruption of the Chinese culture by foreign influences resonates. It's worth seeing in order to better understand Once Upon a Time in China 2, which I recall as being a better film. And the production design is exceptional, especially for a Hong Kong film.

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Transfer Quality

Video

The film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16x9 enhanced.

If this is indeed the same transfer as that released on the UK Region 2 Hong Kong Legends disc, then it is apparently one of the best available transfers. Notwithstanding this, I found it quite disappointing, as there are some irritating problems with it.

The transfer is sharper than VHS and reasonably bright. There is a good level of detail present. Colours are muted, mainly browns and yellows. Apparently this colour scheme is associated with the period. The colour registration does not always look quite accurate, lacking in vividness and more skewed towards the red end of the spectrum. Blacks are a little noisy at times.

The transfer suffers from several artefacts. There are edge enhancement haloes visible throughout, and plenty of Gibb Effect as well, though this is not as severe as the edge enhancement. There is more aliasing than I would have liked, visible in the rigging on board the ship at the start of the film, and noticeable on any straight line that is not horizontal or vertical, for example the detail on the building at 22:32.

Film artefacts are limited to very infrequent white specks and faint white lines, plus some dirt and dust. There are a few grainy insert shots but apart from these the levels of grain are good.

Optional English subtitles are provided. These are quite clear and in a good sized white font, well timed with the dialogue. There are two issues that other reviewers have pointed out. One is that the correct title of the clinic is Po Chi Lam, not Lam Chi Bo as the subtitles show. The other, which I did notice, is that the characters on the burned fan are not subtitled. The damage to the fan has changed the wording from "unequal treaties" to "equal treaties", which causes Wong's reaction to 13th Aunt's negligence. It's a reference to the unequal treaties that China was forced to sign with Western powers during the nineteenth century.

The disc is RSDL-formatted, and the layer change is placed at 103:00 in the middle of a scene as the camera is close-up on Yuen Biao's face. At this point he was nearly motionless and the soundtrack seems to be quiet, but this is right in the middle of a scene and is a slow change, so it is quite disruptive to the flow of the film.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

There are audio tracks in English and Cantonese, both being Dolby Digital 5.1. For some reason the English track is the default one. I listened to the Cantonese, being closer to the original conception of the movie.

This film was shot silent, with the audio being dubbed in later. Audio sync is quite bad as a result, most especially for the European actors but also for several of the Chinese performers as well. There are several instances where what is being said is completely out of kilter with the lip movements of the actors.

Dialogue though seems to be quite clear. There are a few English words in the Cantonese mix that, apart from being obviously dubbed by someone other than the actual actor, are readily decipherable. The audio for the dialogue is open and clean without being very lively.

The surround mix is a remix of the original mono soundtrack, and has been quite well done, though I would have preferred to have the original track as an option. Music and effects come from all directions, and some effort has been made to include directional effects, though these are quite rudimentary when compared to a purpose-recorded surround track. The sound of rain is effectively presented as enveloping the listener, and the first thunderclap at 17:28, coming mainly from the rear speakers, scared the bejeezus out of this reviewer. Some low frequency effects are subtly woven into the audio mix.

At 10:19 there is what seems to be a slight audio glitch, sounding like the audio repeats itself briefly.

The original film series with Kwan Tak Hing originated The Wong Fei Hong Song, also known as The General's Mandate, which can be heard during the opening credits and which became a popular hit again with the release of Once Upon a Time in China.

The music score is quite unusual. It sounds like traditional Chinese music, which is appropriate, but often it does not seem to be in step with the action. It sounds almost like a kind of muzak, so I wonder if the style reflects some Chinese performance art of the era depicted.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu Audio and Animation

The main menu features some generic Asian music and scenes from the film.

Audio Commentary-Bey Logan (Hong Kong Cinema Expert) and Mark King (Actor)

Bey Logan contributes another commentary for Hong Kong Legends, this time joined by American actor Mark King, who plays the British general in the film (his voice dubbed, of course). Logan is a mine of information, and the context he gives to aspects of the film makes this commentary compulsory listening. King is more of a liability. He had never seen the film before, and admits he does not watch many films. He also seems to have contempt for the Hong Kong film industry despite appearing in about 50 films there, probably a result of the way he was treated. His comment that Hong Kong films are films like comic books are books would probably offend comic book readers as well as fans of the Hong Kong film industry. Logan erroneously states that Wong died in 1914.

Gallery-Photo

Well, this is about the least user-friendly photo gallery I have come across. It comprises 28 thumbnails laid out in a U shape on the screen. To view a photo, one needs to navigate until the cursor highlights it, then click on it. To view the next photo, you have to click on Menu, then navigate to the next one and click on it. Why one cannot simply navigate directly from one photo to the next is a mystery.

Biographies-Cast-Jet Li - Animated Biography (33:24)

A long scrolling text biography simultaneously voiced by an American voice-over artist. This gives a good account of Jet Li's career up to the early 2000s, and ends with a filmography. I noticed one or two spelling errors in the text.

Theatrical Trailer-2 (6:14)

Two trailers are provided. The first is the UK promotional trailer for Hong Kong Legends, the second the original and much longer Hong Kong trailer, of which the first 45 seconds are the Media Asia and Film Workshop promos. Both are in widescreen and 16x9 enhanced.

Interviews-Cast-Jet Li (10:35)

This interview with Li was recorded on videotape some time ago by the looks of it. The quality of the video is poor and the sound is distant and a little unclear. There are burned-in yellow subtitles with quite a few spelling errors. Li talks about his beginnings in wu shu and his film career, and there are excerpts from the film Shaolin Temple showing his wu shu skills. There is also brief vision of him as a very young performer, and at home with his family.

Interviews-Cast-Yam Sai-kwoon (7:49)

This interview was conducted in a noisy restaurant and Yam is dubbed into English. He speaks about his career in movies as a martial artist, his father who worked in silent films in Shanghai and goes into detail about an accident involving wires in filming Iron Monkey which nearly cost his life.

Trailers-Armour of God, Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Game of Death, Iron Monkey (8:09)

Trailers for current and future releases in the Hong Kong Legends series, each preceded by a text listing of the features of the disc.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

There are a lot of editions of this film.

The UK Region 2 from Hong Kong Legends appears to be identical to the Region 4, apart from having a different batch of trailers for other releases.

The US Region 1 from Columbia Tristar is reported to have an abysmal video transfer. It seems that the transfer comes from a letterboxed transfer converted to 16x9 enhanced by stretching it, according to one source. It features a commentary by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers and a trailer, plus it also has an alternative English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. It also features two versions of the film: the full length original, and the heavily cut English-dubbed US release, the latter having significantly better video quality.

There is a Region 2 from France which, judging by screen-caps on DVD Beaver, has slightly better picture quality than the UK Region 2 from which the Region 4 comes. It also has an introduction by Jean-Pierre Dionnet and excerpts from three other Wong Fei Hong films. However, it comes as part of a two film set with part 2 of the series, and there are no English subtitles.

An All Regions release from Korea has a transfer that is not 16x9 enhanced. The main extra is a featurette about the film.

The original All Regions Hong Kong release came from Mega Star, and featured a transfer that was not 16x9 enhanced. It included as extras a booklet written by Bey Logan and excerpts of several old Wong Fei Hong films.

IVL have released an All Regions set in Hong Kong which includes the first three films in the Once Upon a Time in China series, none of which are available separately. In comparison to this release, the Region 4 misses out on:

Apart from the theatrical trailer, 16x9 enhancement and the two Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, the IVL misses out on everything the Region 4 has. Judging by comparative screen caps I have between the Hong Kong Legends and the IVL, the IVL has the much better video. Colours are more realistic and more detail is visible. This comparison also highlights that the Hong Kong Legends transfer is cropped on the left hand edge.

On the other hand, the sole review I have seen of the IVL set damns it because of the audio transfer. The dialogue on the surround tracks is set at too low a level in comparison to the effects. The mono mix is apparently not much better and audio sync is poor. The reviewer suggested that a rating of 0.5 out of 5 was appropriate for the audio on this film.

So it is a pity that there is no ideal version of this film available in any region. Because of the audio problems with the IVL, and the additional extras on the Hong Kong Legends release, I would have to recommend the latter.

Summary

An exciting and entertaining wu xia film, despite the excess of "magical" kung fu.

The video quality is not as good as I would have hoped.

The audio quality is good.

A fine range of extras, let down by some navigational idiosyncrasies.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Saturday, February 26, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Great Movie -
Great review. - Ron Stevens
re: -
re: IVL vs French version -