Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Once Upon a Time in China x6

I'm not a big binger, really, even though there's lots of movies I'd like to catch up on; I'm blessed with local theaters that will offer programs that let me dive into something on the big screen (who wouldn't rather encounter something for the first time on 35mm film?), and like seeing movies on those big screens enough that I know any sort of at-home program will be disrupted and drawn out as I duck over to the Brattle for something else. Heck, back in November, I started rewatching the Mad Max movies on their spiffy new 4K discs, got through 2, and just haven't picked it back up. But after an at-home covid test the morning of Christmas Eve had me staying home until I tested negative, I had time to stretch something out a bit, and that Criterion set of the Once Upon a Time in China movies was right next to the TV, why not?

It's an interesting series for how it seems like an early example of the prestige wuxia movies that Crouching Tiger would popularize ten years later - elaborately staged, both in terms of fight choreography and the general production values, with some thoughtfulness about China's place in the world - but wound up with sequels turned around in such rapid succession that the series became something more ordinary quickly. Movie #6 seems to be quasi-unofficial, included in the set as a bonus feature, an odd match. I should probably read the booklet to see what Grady Hendrix and Maggie Lee have to say about how it fits into Hong Kong cinema at the time.

Anyway, you can't go far wrong with this set. The series does seem to hit direct-to-video exhaustion somewhere around film #4, but rallies afterward, and even that one still has some fine action.

Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

I was not sure that I had ever actually seen any of these other than III & IV (back in '04 when the Coolidge was doing weekly midnight ass-kickings on 35mm), but even without having seen the rest, the series is so iconic and the later episodes so built on what is done here that it's kind of like watching something like Psycho for the first time; even if you haven't seen it, you've probably absorbed it. The thing about movies like this is that the general shape isn't as important as it might be; there's job in the details and execution. The main joy, naturally, is simply watching Jet Li move - where other screen fighters may have more elegant choreography or a better knack for injecting their personality or translating the emotional stakes of the plot into action, nobody quite sells the master who sees what's happening and reacts with the right move quite like Li. It makes him an excellent fit for Tsui Hark's take on Wong Fei-Hong.

That he was still kind of raw as an actor kind of makes him a nice fit for Tsui's grander ambitions here. Tsui is taking a broad look at 1890s China where nobody is quite sure what to make of the influx and sudden power of foreigners, let alone folks like 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) who have so thoroughly assimilated and American-Born Chinese Bucktooth So (Jacky Cheung). Li, whether by shrewd casting or design, he's got the confidence that comes with great skill and is right on the line where it could become arrogance in other areas, but never quite does. The changes in Foshan are chaos and Li's Fei-Hung never really understands it, but just tries to keep his people safe, whether as a healer, a negotiator, or a fighter.

Most are here for the fighting, of course, and even if the movie stretches out for a while early on to establish the time and place, the action is top-notch: The restaurant fight is impeccable for how it could just be complete chaos but actually clearly shows Wong just trying to keep folks separated even as folks are tempted to take sides, and the finale is terrific, constantly finding new angles and ways to wrestle with how someone who has mastered kung fu like Wong has to figure out what to do in a world with plentiful guns. There's also something neat about how Tsui frames it - bits are like a side-scrolling game wrapping around the three-dimensional space where the big fight will take place, two types of arena combined into one.

Wong Fei Hung II: Nam yee tung chi keung (Once Upon a Time in China II)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

Tsui Hark does some interesting things with this sequel - it's a bit slimmed-down, twists its perspective to focus on how nationalism can be just as toxic as foreign domination, and pulls Wong into the story of Sun Yat-Sen in a way that feels like a different sort of myth-making. It's focused where the original often feels free to wander, less an epic even though it's still pretty spiffy-looking and has ideas in its head (Tsui and company don't quite reconcile their "westerners are weird about their myths" with how, ultimately, the Chinese in this movie prove pretty susceptible as well, but it's interesting to see him and his writers ruminating on it).

And, hey, it also leads inevitably to a couple of pretty great fights, with Jet Li eventually taking on Xiong Xin Xin and Donnie Yen. The former is creative and almost playful in its staging despite the fact that Wong seems to really hate everything this guy stands for and fights with a rage that reflects it (the priest seems to give the lie to his feelings that foreigners are awful in ways Chinese aren't), while the Li/Yen fight is a couple of greats at their physical peak going at it like few others can.

This is probably not the best of this series - the first seems a little more grand and has the most amazing, elaborate fights - but it may be the one where Tsui and company are drawing the most direct line between their hero's situation in 1895 and their own as Hong Kongers in 1992 and being resigned to it being complicated.

Wong Fei Hung III: Si wong jaang ba (Once Upon a Time in China III)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

I saw this on 35mm back in '04, when Clinton & Garo moved their Weekly Ass-Kickings Series to the Coolidge from the Allston Twin Cinema (which was demolished for a Staples which has, I think, since been demolished), probably before seeing the previous two. Seeing it in the proper order, after a lot more Hong Kong cinema, makes it a fair amount more satisfying. As goofy as the romantic subplot is, it's also the first time in the series that Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan really have a spark rather than just being the biggest male and female names in the film. The way her interests expand into moving pictures also helps solidify how these films are about China at a crossroads, all the more difficult as modernity is tied up with foreign domination.

Things start getting kind of messy here, though; it feels like the pace at which Tsui Hark and company were cranking them out, built around the big action, was causing real problems at the script end. The lion-dancing competition with its different factions and the Russian plot against an Imperial advisor don't totally come together, so the big fights don't really serve as climaxes. On the other hand, the lion-dancing spectacle at the end feels almost surreal, at least for this outsider, a colorful but crazy combination of a street fight, sports, and ritual that doesn't feel like it would occur to anyone else but Tsui, and certainly wouldn't be pulled off so well by another.

Original review from 2004

Wong Fei Hung IV: Wong je ji fung (Once Upon a Time in China IV)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

We've reached the point in the series where everyone seems exhausted but the series keeps going for its fourth entry in three years. Tsui Hark steps back from director's duties, Wong Fei-Hung is recast from Jet Li to Vincent Zhao, Rosamund Kwan's 13th Aunt is moved offscreen but replaced by Jean Wang's 14th Aunt (who apparently was also educated abroad), and there's seemingly no time to think of where to bring the character next so they hang around Beijing and do more lion dancing.

Some of that's fun - the lion-and-dragon bit in the beginning which twists from a misunderstanding to a fun back-and-forth, for instance, is probably the film's high point and just beautiful to watch. It mostly seems off, though - Zhao's Wong is more hot-headed and less concerned with being a healer and peacemaker than Li's, and as a result the sidekick characters have to become even more rash and foolish in comparison. The Red Lantern sect feels like trying to reuse the White Lotus group from #2, except all-woman and with a less-clear vision of what their purpose is. As with #3, Wong feels a bit incidental toward the action at the finish, like the series has reached a point in history where its makers have to find ways for their folk hero to be sidelined rather than to save the day.

Original (kinda cringe-worthy) review from 2004

Wong Fei Hung chi neung: Lung shing chim pa (Once Upon a Time in China V)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

The best thing about this entry in the series is how, when he gets a couple of six-shooters in his hands, the clumsy, stammering American Born Chinese comic relief character Bucktooth So turns out to be a gunslinger and capable of doing Chow-Yun-Fat-in-a-John-Woo-movie bullet ballet stuff with firearms. It seems hilariously out of character but also, in another way, makes perfect sense. The second-best thing is that the lady pirate has something like five separate booby traps in her bed for guys who think they're going to get the upper hand on her with their masculine charms. At this point, Tsui Hark doesn't want to repeat himself, so he's tilting the series from reverent folk heroics to a platform for whatever genre goofiness he wants, and in those moments it is glorious.

The time it takes to get to the point where Wong Fei-Hung and his students are fighting pirates isn't nearly the same sort of fun, in part because it's such an obvious demonstration on just how much these movies are built around spectacularly detailed action set-ups, with much less attention paid to the rest of the movie. Vincent Zhao has improved a bit here and the return of not just Rosamund Kwan but some of the other supporting characters from the first movie is welcome, but there are just a ton of moments when one can't help but wonder if any of these people ever talk to each other or anyone else about anything but martial arts, because they are just complete morons when it comes to human interaction. None of the guys has the slightest idea of how to deal with women, and it seemingly never occurs to anyone to ask basic questions, setting up misunderstandings that the worst screwball comedy writers would be embarrassed by. I'm sure some of it is family structures and traditions that Americans 25-odd years after the film's release and 100 years after the period, just don't get, and some may be satire that's kind of specific to pre-handover Hong Kong, but boy is it a relief when characters start punching and kicking each other, and that the series (kind of) finishes up here.

Fortunately, there's a lot of quality kung fu pirate action here, enough that by the time they've finished, a lot of the weaker bits have been pushed to the back.

Wong fei hung VI: Sai wik hung see (Once Upon a Time in China and America)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Criterion Blu-Ray)

I've seen a couple different box sets that don't treat this as a proper Once Upon a Time in China movie but rather as a glorified bonus feature, and though I can see why - no Tsui Hark on the script, new companies behind it, and maybe a feeling that it twists the legend of Wong Fei-Hung and the genres he fits into a little far - it's still got Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, and Xiong Xin Xin, and despite how much is different, it arguably comes full circle, for those who remember the scenes in the first where good Chinese folks are being scammed into coming to America for what is more or less slave labor.

Even considering the film as its own thing, that thing is Sammo Hung directing a kung fu western with Jet Li, and who doesn't want some of that? Sammo and his team seem delighted at the vast canvas the American west gives them, and they actually do a fair job of balancing what people enjoyed about shoot-em-up westerns and the perspective on this time and place that being Chinese gives them. There's big, entertaining action, broad but believable characters, and a ton of good action from a couple of masters. There's also fun attention to detail, from the remixed version of the theme song, to how of course 13th Aunt has an English name she uses with westerners, to watching Billy stretch his legs in every scene after Clubfoot/Seven mentions it means it's not so crazy when he's joining in the martial arts action later.

It is, of course, cringe as heck at times - for instance, one gets the feeling that everybody means well where the Native Americans are concerned but didn't really do a whole lot of research or take care in casting. The slimmed-down cast helps a lot with not having a lot of needlessly stupid comic relief characters, but Chan Kwok-Pong is a definite downgrade after how great Roger Kwok was in the same part when you watch this back-to-back with #5, and it feels like there are a ton of missed opportunities where Li and Kwan are concerned: They seem to pick up right where they left off in #3, chemistry-wise, and her confident "I'm good at everything" sets up the idea of her being in her element in an English-speaking country in a way that seems like it would be fun to play with but which doesn't pan out (a lot of other fun threads, like the Indians and the saloon girl who likes So, just disappear).

But, hey - it's Sammo Hung directing Jet Li in a western, almost a trial run for their upcoming attempts at post-handover American stardom (Li would soon appear in Lethal Weapon 4 and Hung would start Martial Law). Most American filmmakers get to do one western if they're lucky, and with these guys knowing that folks out of Hong Kong likely would have even fewer opportunities to play in this sandbox, they dive in and have a blast with it, making for a strange, genre-bending good time.

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