Sunday, August 26, 2012

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991, Tsui Hark, Media Asia)

Other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon I cannot imagine a film that so completely shatters the preconceptions outsiders have concerning the martial arts genre, while still distilling the essence of what makes wuxia films a unique and beautiful contribution to the voice of world cinema.

Start with Tsui Hark, who gets called "the Chinese Spielberg" and probably has the most encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema of anyone on the planet. Hark impressively stages this film with the most immersive set design I've ever seen in a Hong Kong picture. So many of the great HK films look like they were filmed on the same sets and in the same wilderness on the Shaw back lot, but this movie convincingly creates the illusion of turn of the century China. Fight scenes on the streets in tea houses gain resonance, and this film is the first time I've ever considered how much collateral damage is involved when two kung fu masters go at it in a crowded environment.

The film centers on Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), the most legendary character of Chinese cinema, but unlike Drunken Master, it chronicles him as an adult and makes full use of his rich tapestry of supporting characters. Butcher Wing provides an emotional counterpart to Wong Fei-Hung's Confucian stoicism; Buck Teeth So and Aunt 13 are re-imagined as opposite sides of the same coin; one is a Chinese-American intent on discovering his roots, and the other is a Chinese woman who has become Westernized in her travels abroad.

Which brings us to the thoughtful subtext that sets this film apart as an all time classic. This film concerns itself with questions of what it means to be Chinese, modern, Western, and heroic. These are questions that are certainly period appropriate for the film's setting, as the film is set just before the Boxer Rebellion, but also very interesting and appropriate in the context of when the film was made. In 1991, Hong Kong was a British colony and a center of trade for all of Southeast Asia, but would come back under the rule of the Chinese mainland in 1997. This film, like so many of the greatest Hong Kong movies of this period, tries to deal with anxieties of returning to the mainland.

The fights are spectacular and the choreography is good, there's a lot less of the speed and violence of Jackie Chan or Yuen Woo-ping's fight scenes, but they compensate with a balletic brilliance. Wong Fei-hung is a calm at the center of a storm of fists and intrigue. His stoicism and humanity serve as a kind of hard-bitten optimism for the Chinese in the final years of the 20th Century... and for us as well.

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