Wong Fei-hung is a celebrated character in Chinese history, a man who was by turns a master of martial arts, a keeper of the peace, and a renowned doctor. Over 100 movies have been made about his lifetime of adventures, a few of them perhaps based on some fragment of reality, but in most his legend has been elevated to the stature of myth. By the time Tsui Hark (the so-called "Spielberg of Hong Kong") got through with his version of the story, the tale of the physician/warrior went straight into the realm of pure fantasy. The films in Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China series are less illustrated history lessons than entertaining showcases for star Jet Li's incredible wire-fu acrobatics.
The original 1991 film wastes little time establishing the background of the Wong Fei-hung story, presumably assuming that the Chinese audience is already more than familiar with the character. In a brief prologue, Wong demonstrates his superb martial arts skills and is shown to be an honorable man charged with the training and leadership of a small militia of men. That, and the fact that he's a doctor as well as a kung-fu master, is all you really need to know. The first movie pits Wong against the competing forces of corrupt politicians, triad gangs, and greedy Western foreigners trying to divide up China for their own interests (which include conning poor Chinese peasants into going to the "Land of Riches" in America where they'll be used as slave labor building railroads). Though he is certainly not a violent or aggressive man, Wong's desire to keep the streets safe inevitably leads to knocking some heads. This doesn't sit well with his adversaries, who conspire to burn down his clinic, arrest him, and recruit a rival kung-fu master to woo his students and take over his territory.
Once Upon a Time in China features some arresting images and truly impressive set-pieces, including its famed ladder fight climax. Action director Yuen Wo-Ping's stunt and fight choreography is a thrilling dance of kicks, punches, and impossible flips through the air. Jet Li is a charismatic performer who brings a composure and dignity to even the most fantastic and outlandish scenes, and is a genuine bad-ass when delivering the blows. On the downside, the movie is overly long and seems to take forever to get to its good parts, which are spread pretty thin throughout. The humor is often too low-brow and doesn't fit in well with the epic nature of the story. A flashy visual stylist, Tsui Hark has always had little sense of pacing or scene construction, and is overly reliant on slow-motion and choppy editing in scenes where they aren't necessarily appropriate. Nonetheless, the picture is entertaining and leaves a more favorable impression by the time it's over than you may be feeling around the middle parts.
The first film a big hit, Tsui cranked out Once Upon a Time in China II just a year later in 1992. In this one, Wong Fei-hung travels to the Canton province to attend a Western medical convention and there encounters the White Lotus Sect, a cult of wack-job religious fanatics who hate all foreigners and want to take over the world (kind of like the G.O.P. but slightly less subtle in their evilness). Also complicating matters is fellow doctor Sun Yat-sen, who turns out to be a hunted revolutionary leader, and a gaggle of orphans that Wong must protect after their school is burned down. Despite the rushed nature of the production, the sequel succeeds in improving on the original in most respects. Wrapping up well under 2 hours (even in its full-length Asian cut), the story is tighter and more focused, and features a better balanced blend of action, humor, and romance. The big fights are once again terrifically staged and executed, especially Wong's duel with the Donnie Yen character, a master of the deadly wet towel (it's silly but somehow the movie makes it work). Some of the narrative is a little jumpy and the climax at the White Lotus temple goes on a little too long, but all in all the film is a successful refinement of the first movie's formula without ever feeling like a stale retread.
For Once Upon a Time in China III (1993), Wong Fei-hung journeys to Beijing to visit his father, who runs a martial arts studio that will be participating in a lion dance competition held by the Empress. Unfortunately, another studio has taken friendly rivalry a few steps too far by recruiting hooligans to knock off the opposition. Naturally, Wong must step in to keep the contest fair, and while he's at it maybe foil a Russian plot to assassinate the Empress if he has time. Part III is definitely the beginning of the series' decline. The plot is a lot less interesting than either of the previous entries, the villain is annoyingly over-the-top cartoonish, and the attempt to mix in dumb romantic comedy elements doesn't work well at all. By this film, Yuen Wo-Ping has departed as action director and the movie is worse off for it. Although there are a couple of good fights, such as Wong's battle across an oil-slicked floor, the majority of action scenes are too cluttered and chaotic, without any clear sense of choreography. Director Tsui indulges in the spectacle of lion dancing to the point of tedium, including staging most of the important action and narrative scenes with the main characters hidden in the costuming. On the other hand, Jet Li and returning love-interest Rosamund Kwan can carry the movie through passages that just wouldn't work at all with lesser stars, and the core concept and characters are still appealing. The third movie is a weaker effort, but has enough enjoyable elements in its favor to be worth a viewing or two.
Wong Fei-hung's adventures did not end with just three movies. The franchise proved popular enough to wring out a Once Upon a Time in China IV and V, both with new stars in the lead roles. Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan returned in 1997 for the sixth and (thus far) final movie, Once Upon a Time in China and America, by which time the series had mostly degenerated into a parody of itself.
The first movie is quite grainy and soft, with some patches of footage that look especially dupey. Edge enhancement is also present. However, colors are strong and the source elements have been cleansed of the dirt and scratches normally seen in other video copies of the film. The movie may not be reference quality, but it looks reasonably good overall, and is certainly a huge improvement over the lousy Columbia TriStar version. Part II is rather hazy (whether this is a stylistic choice or a video transfer problem I'm not sure), with dull colors and an unfortunate greenish tinge through later scenes in the movie. Still, again, the source elements are clean and in general it isn't terrible. The final movie is by far the sharpest and most colorful, though it also has more noticeable edge enhancement and compression artifacting problems.
Despite their flaws, these may well be the best these movies have looked on home video. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that until recently Hong Kong films were never stored or preserved by their distributing studios with any care. The problems we see here are par for the course given the movies' origins.
Regardless of its origins, no movie from 1991 should ever sound as bad as Once Upon a Time in China does here. Of the four available audio tracks, there is no good alternative. This is perhaps the worst-sounding DVD ever. We can start by immediately dismissing all of the 5.1 remixes, which are entirely unlistenable. In each of them, the dialogue track is completely out of phase and is suppressed way down in volume compared to all of the other sounds. This is simply unbearable. I've never heard a DTS track sound this awful. The only option that is even remotely tolerable is the original mono mix, which is constrained by dull fidelity and poor sound effects. The dialogue is fortunately audible here, but it is shrill and way out of sync with the picture. On a 5-point ratings scale, this disc would merit barely a 0.5, and only that high by virtue of the fact that there is any sound at all.
Whatever mishap occurred during the dialogue remixing of the first movie was thankfully not duplicated on either of the sequels. The mono tracks on both of them sound basically the same as that on the first movie, which is not too impressive, but the 5.1 mixes are slightly better. Dialogue is audible, in phase, and not distorted. That in itself is a huge improvement, though the ADR work is still often out of sync, and the tracks remain limited by the inherent weaknesses in the original recordings. Overall fidelity is still dull, and unlike they had been doing in some of their shoot-'em-up action movies it does not appear that Fortune Star replaced many of the canned library sound effects (perhaps a couple of gunshots in part II sound good and may be new). Very little attempt has been made to add stereo or surround dimensionality to the mixes, except for little bits here and there, including some arrow sounds spread out around the soundstage. Largely, the 5.1 mixes remain primarily monaural, which is both a little disappointing and perhaps also a blessing that they didn't try to make the tracks too obnoxiously gimmicky.
On the sequels, the DTS tracks offer a slightly smoother sound than the Dolby Digital, and for that are the recommended listening option. On the same 5-point scale used earlier, I'd give each sequel's DTS mix a 2, and so adding the three movies together leaves us with a consolidated average rating of 1.5. Not particularly thrilling, I'm afraid.
English subtitles have been provided, as well as Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The English translation is coherent but not great.
The most interesting bonus feature is the Legend of Huang Fei Hong featurette, which is broken into three segments, one per disc. Each runs approximately 15 minutes with optional English subtitles. The featurette provides some background about the real historical character the movies are purportedly based on, and though it is a glossy and superficial overview it is also at times genuinely informative for Western viewers not versed in the legend.
No ROM supplements have been included.