Combining social satire, a thematic preoccupation with Chinese nationalism and the changing tide of technological development, and a lot of action, Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) never fails to entertain. Tsui Hark’s 1991 film starts with a dragon dance, one of the most elaborate and colourful displays of traditional Chinese culture. This seemingly inauspicious beginning is actually rather significant because, even though it takes place very early in the film, it is nonetheless the pivotal scene that helps to set up the major themes of the film.
Chinese dignitaries watch this dragon dance while aboard a vessel harboured in the bay. Keeping with local tradition, firecrackers are set off. As a result, foreign soldiers on a nearby ship believe that they are under attack and begin to shoot at the ship. It is a significant detail that the foreign soldiers immediately recognise that it was firecrackers that they heard and not guns, and stop shooting almost immediately.
The comedic effect of the quickly turns ominous, however. The person who is manning the head of the dragon is hit and falls from the ship’s rigging, where the lion had been performing. Now vacated, the lion’s head begins to tumble down. At this point the viewer imagines that all hell will break loose, and the two ships will begin to fire at each other. Yet this is not the case, for the potential hostilities between the Chinese and foreign sailors are quickly brought under control.
Rather than falling prey to the expected, Tsui’s script and staging are instead concentrated on making sure that the head of the dragon does not hit the ship’s deck. This is why the scene of the dragon dance is so important in setting the tone of the film. The dragon dance dates back to about the third century B.C. This Chinese ritual is an expression of happiness and joy. Suitable occasions for enacting a dragon dance vary, but this colorful celebration always depicts nobility, dignity, good luck, and most importantly, the portent of good omen. Thus, it makes sense that the protagonist, Master Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), launch himself at the lion’s head in order to keep it from hitting the deck. Of course, his failure to secure the lion’s head under any circumstances would be bad in itself – an example of what the Chinese refer to as “losing face”. The situation is made worse by the intrusion of the foreign soldiers.
Given the complexity of its multi-layered plot, it is more fruitful to discuss some of the key themes of Tsui’s film. Once Upon a Time in China is an effective combination of cultural/historical satire and entertainment. It takes place in 19th century Canton, and is set in a time of great change throughout China. Modernisation, technological development and Westernisation are themes that make their appearance throughout the film.
In addition to these themes, there is also the question of what constitutes proper Chinese identity. For instance, when the female character known as Aunt 13 (Rosamund Kwan) returns from England, the locals can’t figure out if she is Chinese or not because she is wearing Western clothes. This makes for some rather funny exchanges. To make things worse, Aunt 13 brings a huge camera home with her. The locals are intrigued by this new contraption that can capture their still image.
Another theme that is central to Once Upon a Time in China is the introduction of Christianity into China. When Jesuit priests are heard walking down a narrow street signing “Alleluia”, the local band that is playing in a tavern up the tempo of the traditional Chinese composition that they are playing. Most importantly, however, during one of the heavier scenes found in the film, Master Wong rebuffs the priests who mention the power of Jesus Christ. He questions whether Jesus will actually save his people. While the director could have used this scene to take a jab at Christianity, he instead makes the priest and his Christian message a turning point later on in the film. Subsequently, the priest is not only the sole courageous person to come forth and denounce the members of the rival, money-extorting Shaho gang, he is also willing to take a bullet – and die – in order to protect Master Wong and Aunt 13.
Other themes of the film include the bitter fighting that went on between rival gangs in China during that period. This problem lingers partly because local villagers are afraid to speak-out against the criminals. Some of these gangs are dealers who round up their own people and sell them into slavery.
But the dominant theme of Once Upon a Time in China, however, concerns the rapid changes that China underwent in the 19th century, with Tsui’s script highlighting some of the cultural changes that modern technology brought to China.
Tsui depicts this clash of technology with traditional Chinese culture by concentrating on the purity of kung fu, and how this ancient art form cannot match the revolver. Master Yim, who is Master Wong’s rival, refers to this new kind of fighting as “armoured pugilism”, and directly states: “We can’t fight guns with kung fu”. While this is true, it is also ironic, as according to historical accounts, it was the ancient Chinese who developed gunpowder, during the Tang dynasty.
Once Upon a time in China is animated entertainment. The film explores the graceful possibilities of the martial arts of a former age. It does not make claims to realism. Even the title suggests a time long ago, in a place and time that might have existed but which no longer survives.
Wong Fei Hung/Once Upon a Time In China (1991 Hong Kong 134 mins)
Prod Co: Film Workshop Prod, Dir: Tsui Hark Scr: Gai Chi Yuen, Tsui Hark, Pik-yin Tang, Yiu Ming Leung Phot: Chan Pui-kai Ed: Marco Mak Prod Des: Lau Man-Hung Mus: Romeo Diaz, James Wong
Cast: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Steve Tartalia, Kent Cheng