Once Upon A Time In China

Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Jet Li, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan, Kent Cheng
Extras: Dubbed English Language Version, Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailers, Talent Files

After first working together in 1989’s ’The Master, ’ Hong Kong action director extraordinaire Tsui Hark and international martial arts legend Jet Li teamed up again in 1991 to bring the story of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung to the silver screen for the ninety-ninth time. Filmed at the height of the Hong Kong cinema boom, ’Once Upon a Time in China’ stands as one of the finest martial arts movies of all time.

Set in the village of Fa Shan in Canton, China in the late 1800s, the story revolves around the attempts of one man, Confucian healer and teacher Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), to unite his countrymen against the foreign invaders who are militarily and culturally conquering his land. Forming a well-disciplined local militia, he faces off against the guns of his more technologically advanced foes with nothing more than sheer determination and the martial arts skills and traditional weapons of China. At the same time, there are rival forces among his own people who wish to see him fail. Helping Wong in his mission are Buck Teeth Soh (Jacky Cheung), a student of Wong’s who has recently returned from America and has nearly forgotten how to speak Cantonese; Porky Lang (Kent Cheng), the local rotund pork merchant with anger management problems; and his beloved Auntie Yee (Rosamund Kwan), who is later kidnapped in an attempt to get to Wong Fei-hung.

If the story sounds a bit simple it’s because it has been retold literally hundreds of times in Chinese books and movies. Much like the Robin Hood legend in the West, the story of Wong Fei-hung is immediately familiar to Chinese audiences so a completely original story with a lot of background information is not needed. Where ’Once Upon a Time in China’ really shines is in the skills of its director and star. Tsui Hark stands apart from the crowd of Hong Kong action directors and brings his own style and visual flair to this traditional film while never allowing the abundant action to overwhelm the drama. The cinematography is almost epic in nature while the choreography of the fight scenes is at once exciting and unique.

But the movie would be just another run-of-the-mill martial arts flick if it weren’t for the inimitable talents of Jet Li. What he brings to the role of Wong Fei-hung is a quiet confidence and undeniable martial arts skill. The fight scenes are a wonderful blend of traditional kung-fu styles with the more modern wire-fu innovations as seen in films like ’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ Whether parrying with an umbrella, using a ladder as a deadly weapon, or resorting to hand-to-hand combat, Jet Li is at the height of his game here and you’ll need that slow motion button on your DVD remote to catch all his moves.

Previously available as a Hong Kong import, ’Once Upon a Time in China’ is now available in a new special edition from Columbia TriStar. The DVD features the full-length version of the film complete with the original Cantonese language soundtrack. As a bonus, the heavily edited English dubbed version is also available from the special features menu.

The video is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced. Unfortunately, that’s about the only good thing it has going for it. It’s clear that this <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer was not struck from a high definition master and we probably would have been better served if it had been left non-enhanced. As with most Hong Kong films, the source materials are very dirty, grainy, slightly soft, and washed out. None of these issues come as a surprise, although Columbia TriStar Home Video should take counter measures and clean these transfers up before releasing them. The big problem with this transfer is that, by enhancing a bad, low definition master, many new problems have been introduced that are missing on the Hong Kong import discs. Most noticeable among these is the halo effect that plagues the picture. Every object on screen has a ghost image attached to it that’ll drive you batty and the bigger your monitor the more bothersome this effect. The poor quality of the video is almost a deal-breaker and likely will be for those with high-end systems. Sadly this is a problem that is evident in practically all of Columbia’s releases of Hong Kong films. Since we see from publishers like Tai Seng or Anchor Bay that domestic Hong Kong DVDs don’t have to look that way, the lack of quality on these titles is now truly becoming a disappointment with Columbia TriStar Home Video.

Ironically, the video of the English dubbed version is noticeably cleaner and lacks any hint of the dreaded halo effect. So it’s a toss up. You can choose to watch the unedited original and deal with the sub-par video or you can suffer through the heavily edited dubbed version in order to see a more pleasing picture.

As for audio, the uncut version features the original Cantonese, or optional Mandarin soundtrack, in DD 2.0 mono. While the fact that it’s mono may be off-putting, the audio sounds much better than many of the awful 5.1 remixes that have been done for other Hong Kong films. While there is very little dynamic range, dialogue is clear and centered and the fine musical score is well-presented, although more than a tad hindered by the narrow soundstage. The audio won’t win any awards but is more than serviceable. The English dub version features a DD 2.0 mono track that is about on par with the audio of the unedited version in terms of quality.

While not promoted as a special edition, ’Once Upon a Time in China’ does feature a few nice extras. First and foremost is the English dubbed version that, while typically of no use to purists, does provide the superior video transfer in this unfortunate instance. Next up is a running commentary by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers. While nominally a screen-specific discussion of the film, the track also acts as an introduction to Hong Kong films in general. Folks new to the genre should find it quite educational while current HK fans will find a number of interesting tidbits as well. Meyers is conversational and light-hearted in nature which matches well with the overall tone of the film.

Next up are bios and filmographies for Tsui Hark, Jet Li, and Rosamund Kwan. Finally, a gallery of film trailers is included featuring sneak peeks at ’Once Upon a Time in China,’ ’Gen-X Cops,’ and three Jackie Chan films; ’Miracle,’ ’Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?’ and ’Gorgeous.’

While I’m glad to own ’Once Upon a Time in China’ on DVD, this Columbia TriStar release really is a mixed bag. The video on the original, uncut version of the film is atrocious leaving the viewer with the unpleasant task of choosing between the inferior and heavily edited English dub version or suffering through the bad picture in order to enjoy the complete story in its original language. The audio isn’t great by any means but is adequate and typical for films of this genre. The real saving grace for this disc is the inclusion of the wonderful <$commentary,commentary track> — a feature that is sorely lacking on most Hong Kong DVD releases.

’Once Upon a Time in China’ is a wonderful retelling of a classic Chinese folktale. The movie blends furious action, goofy traditional Cantonese comedic elements, sweeping drama, and a touch of romance to produce a film that is uniquely Hong Kong in nature. The recent success of ’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ has lent an air of legitimacy to these films and hopefully this new-found interest in Hong Kong cinema will lead to more, quality DVD releases in the future.

While I hesitate to give Columbia TriStar’s ’Once Upon a Time in China’ DVD a blanket recommendation I can state that I, for one, am happy to have it in my collection. As a fan of Hong Kong films I’m quite accustomed to shoddy transfers so I’m able to suffer through the poor picture and enjoy the film and accompanying commentary. Viewers with very large screens will have a much harder time getting past the inadequacies of this release so I would caution anyone considering this DVD to first take a peek at a rental copy.