NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Chinese import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Wong Fei Hung is the biggest of big in Chinese folklore. He's a literal legend over there and his stories are told over and over again in literature and film. Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time In China trilogy perfectly casts Jet Li in the lead role and puts him into the nineteenth century, a period of great turmoil in the East as western culture started to creep in and influence things a little bit for the first time.
The success of the first film spawned a bunch of sequels, the first three of which starred Jet Li as well and had Tsui Hark's involvement behind the camera. The first three films in the series (compiled in this boxed set) are widely recognized as land mark films in the martial arts genre thanks to their free spirited sense of fun and amazingly choreographed fight scenes and stunt work.
Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
Wong Fei Hung runs a martial arts training ground in the town of Fa Shan that trains the local men to fight so that they can act as a militia or army reserve. He's also well accomplished in the healing arts and acts as a doctor sometimes, helping out people whenever he can. He's a nice guy who is happy to lend a hand to a friend in need, but when his aunt (Rosamund Kwan) returns from a trip abroad a convert of westernization, he starts to get a little irked at the way that China's economy and culture seems to have recently been absorbed by western ideals and philosophies.
Wong and his aunt are quite close and despite the fact that he is more than a little put off by her recent change, he still looks out for her as best he can. Soon though, he'll have to stop hanging out with his aunt and start kicking tail in the name of his country when things start to go sour in Fa Shan and the local militia gets called into action to protect the town. Wong and his rag tag group of locals (played by Jackie Cheung, Yuen Biao, and Kent Chang) will have to put all that their practice into play as they take on some triad bad guys, some evil westerners and a few corrupt government types as well as a rogue kung fu master named Iron Robe Yim (Yan Yee Kawn of Iron Monkey).
Once Upon A Time In China II (1992)
In this first sequel, Wong, joined again by Aunt Yee as well as his buddy Foon all make the trek from Fa Shan to Canton so that Wong can attend the era's equivalent of a medical conference. To get there, they take a train ride and upon arriving in Canton, quickly run into trouble. A martial arts gang called The White Lotus Sect have sworn to eradicate their country of all western influences and when they see Aunt Yee strutting around like a westerner, she soon becomes their target.
When at the conference, Wong gives a demonstration of his acupuncture techniques that is met with skepticism from the many European scholars visiting. It takes some clever translation from Sun Yat Sen to convince them that this is a legitimate form of medicine, and Wong Fei Hung is quickly applauded for his efforts.
The White Lotus Clan have had their eyes on Sun Yat Sen for a while now as they figure his teaching center, seeing as it is in favor of the modernization of China, must be propagating western values and they soon set out to capture Sun and all of his companions. To make matters worse, the local official, General Lan (Donny Yen, also of Iron Monkey), also wants Sun Yat Sen brought into custody as he fears him to be a threat to the area.
Once Upon A Time In China III (1993)
Western influence from the Americans and the Europeans is ruining China, raping the land of its riches and stealing the culture of its people. The Empress and the Prime Minster aren't exactly happy about this and so they put their heads together and come up with the idea of hosting a traditional Chinese Lion Dance in which the best martial artists from around the country will compete for a prestigious gold medal. The logic behind this is that the foreign occupants will be so wowed by the traditional Chinese fighting arts that they'll back off a little bit and leave things alone for a while.
It just so happens that while all of this is going on, Wong Fei Hung and his Aunt Yee have arrived in Beijing so that Wong can hang out with his dad for a little while. One of the area's kung fu masters, the sinister Chiu, is running around trying to intimidate local competitors from entering the competition to assure himself the victory and when Wong's father refuses his demands, he finds himself and his shop on the end of a serious thrashing thanks to Chiu's number one thug, Club Foot.
When Wong realizes what has happened, he begins to see the cracks in the armor of this plan, and realizes that rather than unite the Chinese people for a greater good, it's setting them against each other and tearing them apart. Wong tries to get the Empress and the Prime Minister to call off the competition but it's to no avail. To make matters worse, Wong Fei Hung uncovers a sinister plot to assassinate Li Hung-Chang, an important government official – an act that could potentially start a war.
With Jet Li in his prime and fight choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping (aided by Donny Yen in the second film), the Once Upon A Time In China trilogy is an action fans dream come true. Each of the three films have some fantastic fight scenes in them with the two showdowns between Jet Li and Donny Yen in the second movie being a notable highlight, as well as the now famous ladder sequence from the first movie being a pinnacle of fight choreography to be envied around the world. The action in these films is amazing – it's so fluid and brutal and lovely and violent and graceful and savage all at the same time that it's almost difficult to describe. Jet Li moves almost like an animated character, his entire body poised to attack, dodge, parry or thrust at any given time with almost mechanical precision. Sure, some of the wirework is obvious and that might take away from the experience for a select and picky few but the influence these films have had on modern action movie making is undeniable, from The Matrix to X-Men to Kill Bill to Star Wars, it's obvious that Hollywood as paying attention.
There's more to this trilogy than just action, however. The sense of patriotism and the political views that the films take is undeniable, there's an obvious sense of pride on display here and it works within the context of Wong Fei Hung's larger than life adventures. Whether it be doing his part to stand up for Chinese culture or something on a smaller level like helping out his old man, Wong stays true to his roots and takes care of those he knows. He's a noble character, not a sneaky anti hero or a pissed off cop who has been pushed too far but a real hero in the truest and most literal sense of the word.
And what would the hero be in the film without the right man to portray him? Jet Li is perfectly cast here, making some of the almost dance like fight scenes look easy and taking everything with a serious manner but not unafraid to delve into comic relief periodically when things start to get a little too heavy. He and Tsui Hark really had a great chemistry here, or at least it sure looks that way, as these three films are some of the finest that either one of them has made in their mutually long and reasonably distinguished careers. Rosamund Kwan, who also appears in all three films as Wong's kinda-sorta love interest (Are they? Aren't they? Who can tell!) makes for a great counterpart to Li's healer/martial arts master and they make a good match in these three films.
Worth noting is that all three films in this set are presented uncut. When released in North America, there were some cuts made to the movies but any excised footage has since been restored in this collection.
All three films are presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen and while they're not perfect, they're noticeably better than the terrible region one releases that came out a few years ago from Columbia/Tri-Star. Anyone who has seen those releases knows that they're ugly, muddy, and at times almost unwatchable. Fortune Star's remastered efforts do look noticeably better, but they still show some mild print damage in the form of the occasional speck here and there, heavy grain, and edge enhancement throughout. All three films have nice, bold colors and don't have any issues with mpeg compression artifacts though, and skin tones look quite good and quite natural. The third movie is in better shape than the first two are and as such it looks noticeably better but nothing here is even close to as horrid looking as the R1 discs. They could have been better, but Fortune Star has at least made an effort to clean up the image and provide decent transfers for the three films.
Each of the three films in the set is presented in its original Cantonese language track with optional subtitles available in English and Korean. Tracks are available in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mixes as well as in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes.
Regardless of which option you chose for the first film, it just doesn't sound good. At times the dialogue is muffled and very much overpowered by the sound effects and background music. The mono mix sounds a little better than the surround efforts do on this disc but even that track is far from what anyone can really call 'good,' especially considering that there are some heavy duty audio synch problems noticeable throughout the film.
The second and third films do fare a little better than their predecessor did and you can at least enjoy the dialogue without having to strain your ears or mess around with the settings on your receiver. There aren't any distortion issues, everything is synched up nicely, and the clarity is much improved. The directional effects sometimes sound a little odd on the surround mixes but there's nothing too seriously wrong, and the mono tracks are decent enough.
As far as the subtitles go, they're removable and easy to read and I didn't notice any glaring typos during playback. A couple of the phrasings are a little on the awkward side but for the most part this is a nice translation that is easy to follow.
Each disc includes a picture gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a newly created trailer to promote the Fortune Star remastered editions. In addition to that, each disc contains one part of a three part series that delves into the history of the real life Wong Fei Hung. While it's hardly an in-depth examination of the man and the myth it does make for an interesting primer course on the character and it does do a nice job of bringing audiences up to speed on just who this guy is and why he's so popular in China.
Judging by the specks, it looks like this Korean set is almost a direct port of the remastered discs that Fortune Star released in Hong Kong a little earlier (just without the Mandarin dub and subtitles). The films look much better than their western counterparts and although the audio from the first is horrible, the rest of this set is pretty solid and the three movies are great. With that in mind, The Once Upon A Time In China collection comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.