In turn-of-the-century China, folk hero Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), a skilled martial artist and even more skilled healer, must contend with the encroachment of the West and its slow corruption of his country and its ancient ways.
Somewhere over a hundred movies have been made about Wong Fei Hung (the same character played by Jackie Chan in Legend of the Drunken Master), which is somewhat astounding considering the real Fei Hung only died in 1927! Each successive generation seems to put its own spin on the character, the heroic qualities of this historic figure speaking to each period's concerns.
Tsui Hark's highly successful version of the hero not only steadied Jet Li's stumbling career, but brought the character fully into the Hong Kong 90s, with all its uncertainties about encroaching foreigners and assimilation into another culture. Hark doesn't walk an easy path here, however; though the Westerners are evil, the truly heinous characters are the Chinese who prey on their own countrymen, and in his darkest hour, when all forces seem arrayed against him, the one person who comes to his aid is a Catholic missionary - who surely, in a less thoughtful film, would have been a (too-obvious) villain.
No Wong Fei Hung story is complete without some dazzling martial arts, and the fight supervisors come up with some doozies, providing a prime showcase for Li's superb skills. Adding to Fei Hung's problems throughout the last third of the movie is a rival martial artist named Iron Vest Yin. Their final fight in a grain storehouse, their battlefield a series of teetering, flipping, constantly moving ladders, raised the bar considerably for all future fight scenes.
The print for this transfer is practically flawless, with only a minor scratch or "cigarette burn" at reel changes. The colors seem a bit muted and squashed, but I think this is more a product of the filming than any technical defect; everything has a slightly hazy feel - nothing seems to enhance the illusion of old times like smoke hanging in the air - but skin tones seem true.
There are "Talent Files" - actually filmographies - for Tsui Hark and stars Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan, and trailers for this movie, Gen-X Cops, and three Jackie Chan flicks: Miracles, Who Am I? and Gorgeous.
The commentary track by Ric Meyers is very good and frequently humorous. He is quite informative about HK film conventions and the Wong Fei Hung saga as it has developed in the cinema. The one shortcoming to the track is his recurring complaint about the subtitlers not translating the occasional piece of written Chinese. It is a lapse, true, but it seems a writer of Meyers' reputation would have the resources to find a native speaker or knowledgeable gwailo to translate the writings, so his track, at least, could be forthcoming with that information.
But the best bonus is the English-dubbed version of the movie. I personally prefer subtitles when I can get them; however, one of my best friends is also a big fan of HK movies, but he has dyslexia, and therefore has trouble "reading movies". And it's not merely a matter of yet another soundtrack over the original film - the cut of the English version is different, with several of the scenes that detail the clashing language problems between characters excised.
In my opinion, Columbia/Tri-Star has come out with the perfect treatment of a foreign film, not only respectful, but with support material that informs and allows everyone to enjoy the movie. Dimension Films could certainly learn a thing or two about presenting HK films from this example. Columbia has slated the sequel (appropriately, Once Upon A Time in China 2) for release in May, and if it is a disc of the same quality, they can at least count on getting my money.
Dr. Freex, 4/11/2001