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Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy

Columbia/Tri-Star // R // August 12, 2003
List Price: $27.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted August 7, 2003 | E-mail the Author

The Movie

Since hyperbole gets thrown around so often by reviewers everywhere, allow me to perpetuate the practice by utilizing the word "legendary" a few times; more specifically, the Convergence of Legend. As in, Jet Li: Legendary Chinese martial arts champion and action movie star, the charismatic presence behind The Legend, Twin Warriors, and The Enforcer; Tsui Hark: Legendary film director, the driving force behind Peking Opera Blues, Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain, and Dragon Inn; and finally Wong Fei-hung, the legendary Nineteenth-Century Chinese martial arts hero himself, a figure revered in myth, story, song, and film. With this all of this Legend being carried about, like so many nickels and dimes, the entire notion of Jet Li playing the role of Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark's epic Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy leaves one quivering with impish and joyously geeklike anticipation.

I remember seeing the first film back in 1998, when it was announced that Jet Li had signed on for a role in the latest craptacular Lethal Weapon sequel. Fanboy sites around the Internet rattled with joy upon hearing the news, and I couldn't help but utter: "Jet who?!!" What a chump. A sympathetic colleague loaned me his dog-eared copy of the first Once Upon A Time In China, and I was instantly entranced by Li's bravura display of panther-like skill, grace, and sheer power. I laughed along with the film's many slapstick comedy bits, and gazed appreciatively at its extensive and elaborate sets, costumes and generally high production values.

So why -- returning to the first film five years later, and viewing the sequels for the first time -- was I left just a little cold by the entire enterprise?

I'm not saying or even implying that the films that comprise the Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy are bad movies, or even mediocre. OK, Part III is a little weak (Clubfoot aside), and Part II doesn't quite reach the highs of the first film, but overall the films aspire to be something better and grander than simple "chop-socky" with plots thrown in after-the-fact. However, after watching the movies I felt that they definitely seemed disjointed, with some great scenes interspersed with slapstick, melodrama, and subplots that subdivide the films into sums of their better parts. Indeed, you could probably cut a good half-hour out of the first film that would tighten the storyline and smooth out some of the rather languid pacing issues.

What I do enjoy about the films is their insistence upon presenting a story, a valid drama that anchors the series with both pride and the need to protect their native culture and heritage from outside (read: Western) influences. Wong Fei-hung's assumption of leadership in the face of exploitation and cultural eradication makes for some rather heart-swelling drama, even if the storylines sometimes feel a little flat. There is an emphasis on character development and narrative which elevates the Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy beyond your more mundane "action films." And Jet Li's moves -- when's he actually performing them, sometimes long passages will go by before he starts kicking tail -- are always a pip.

Columbia/TriStar has taken the first three films in the series and released them in one two-DVD package as the Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy. This is basically a repackaging of the earlier DVDs, although some of the supplemental material has been dropped. While those who would like to introduce themselves to the films might find these DVDs to be a decent start, more ardent fans might who already have the discs can take a pass, or perhaps look elsewhere for more detailed supplemental material.


Once Upon A Time In China is featured on the first disc. Once Upon A Time In China 2 is featured on Side A of Disc Two, while Once Upon A Time In China 3 is on Side B.

The Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and each film has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen viewing joy. The overall quality of the transfers is somewhat disappointing. Right off the bat, the picture has a faded, washed-out appearance. Image detail is soft and slightly fuzzy, giving the transfer a flimsy and dated feel. Colors are rather muted, while inconsistent contrast levels the give the entire appearance both a brownish, murky feel and an overly bright, blooming air. Accordingly, black levels and shadow delineation are similarly limited. The transfer also sports some occasional speckling and minor print debris, but overall the video is fairly clean. There is haloing and some prominent ghosting throughout the films, but compression noise and telltale pixellation remain minimal. I'm disappointed with the overall quality of the video. While the DVDs might present the films as "the best they've ever looked", one could only hope for sharper, more vibrant and detailed presentations.

Once Upon A Time In China is presented in both Cantonese and Mandarin via a rather monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, while Parts 2 and 3 both sport Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentations. The 2.0 audio of the first film is somewhat disappointing, especially in light of the 5.1 of its sequels. Dialog seems mixed unnaturally low in comparison to the score and sound effects. The punches, kicks and smacks of the martial arts action sound especially overpowering. There is little spatiality and directionality to the mix, giving the entire presentation an overall flat, lifeless feel.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes on Parts 2 and 3 obviously have the advantage in the audio department, although it isn't really by all that much. Both Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks are included. Overall fidelity seems rather restrained. While there is noticeable improvement in dialog levels and the dialog, sound effects, and the orchestral score seems better balanced, the dynamic range feels limited. The orchestral score seems especially weak and hollow. The soundstage has opened up considerably in comparison with the first film, but the overall field is not especially spacious or discrete. LFE activity is extremely minimal. Again, this is a general improvement over the first film, but not by too much.

Sadly, there are no extras included in this set. Not even a trailer!

Final Thoughts

The word that comes to mind is Disappointing, and sadly that is far from hyperbole. Whatever one might think of the films -- and despite my earlier criticisms, I enjoy them a lot more than I have problems with them -- they deserve a far better treatment then they have received in thi set.  The presentation is extremely weak, with flimsy transfers and listenable but rather flat audio. Compounded with the complete and total lack of supplemental material and extras, I'm left a little sad by this set. Even the original Columbia/TriStar DVD release of Once Upon A Time In China had a commentary track!

Overall, this set merits a rental based on the films alone and their importance within the context of the history of HK action/martial arts films. Hardcore and devoted fans of the Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy should bypass this set entirely and, if they are Multi-Region/PAL capable, seek out the amazing R2 releases from Hong Kong Legends (complete with remastered and restored video, feature-length commentaries, trailers, interviews, and more.)

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