Once Upon a Time In China – Blu Ray Box Set Review

Eureka Entertainment in the UK are without a doubt the label to go for if you want quality HD releases of classic Hong Kong action movies and this One Upon a Time in China Box Set continues the trend.

Tsui Hark directed the first three movies and gave new life to the then dying Kung fu movie genre and the films made Jet Li the new action superstar in Hong Kong.

Once Upon A Time In China has Jet Li playing for the first time iconic martial arts legend Wong Fei Hung, who not only has to deal with foreign invasion and Western influence on China, but also a poor and desperate Kung Fu master who has fallen on hard times and challenges Wong Fei Hung to establish himself and open a school in the town. There is a lot of political subtext in the movie, not knowing where China was heading with so much Western influence, which was a similar feeling at the time of the films release in Hong Kong, which was then still to be handed back to China from the British in 1997. Also the use of handguns which some said was making the art of Kung Fu obsolete and useless.

The direction from Tsui Hark is superb with excellent cinematography and lighting and also great performances from Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Yen Shi Kwan. The action is choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping and partly Lau Gar Wing and most of the emphasis is on wire enhanced action, which some disliked at the time but it gave the genre a fresh new look. Jet Li gets to show some of his WuShu skills but because he broke both ankles in a jump from a building halfway through production is doubled heavily in the finale. But it is his acting and screen charisma that really shines through. It is this, as well as Tsui Hark’s attention to detail that makes this movie a true classic.

It’s very rare that a sequel is better than the original, especially in Hong Kong cinema, but Once Upon A Time In China 2 is not only better, but it is the best of the series.

Jet Li once again plays Wong Fei Hung and this time battles the White Lotus Sect, who want all foreigners killed and banished from China. Wong Fei Hung must not only protect himself and friends from the sect but also protect Dr Sun Yat Sen and his followers who are decreed enemies of the government.

The story is much more streamlined this time and gives Wong Fei Hung stronger character development. His co-stars equipt themselves well and his main nemesis played by Donnie Yen almost steals the show and there one on one battles are the highlights of the film, with less emphasis on wire-work and more on their weapons skill.

Finally Part 3 and sadly this chapter is the most disappointing of the trilogy. Wong Fei Hung is visiting Beijing during a competition designed to determine what group has the best Lion King dancers. Here he comes into conflict with the criminal gangs and sets out to eliminate there bullying tactics. He also foils several nefarious plots against the government – one of which has gotten his love, Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) involved.

The plot is a bit of a mess and the many lion dance scenes don’t help matters. The villain is typically over the top and the action when it does come is so reliant on wire-work it just makes some of the fights seem silly. Hung Yan Yan is good as Clubfoot, the villain’s top fighter who changes sides and Lau Shun is wonderful and Wong Kay Ying, Fei Hung’s father, but overall it’s a big disappointment.

Finally as an extra, we get a H D version of the 6th film in the series, Once Upon A Time in China and America (parts 4 and 5 starred Wushu expert Chui Man Chuk who replaced Jet Li after he fell out with the director).

On this outing Wong Fei Hung is traveling in America to the old west, to help out with an opening of his Po Chi Lam medical practice. While traveling he and his Horse Carriage gets attacked by Indians and during the chase he hits his head and looses his memory. Luckily he is rescued by an Indian tribe and as he slowly regains his memory he has to try and save the local Chinese community from an outlaw and his gang who rob the town’s bank and the law turns to the Chinese immigrants as scapegoats.

Rushed into production and shot in Texas the film is an odd mixture of Western cowboy tradition and Chinese kung fu cinema. Directed by Sammo Hung the film has a good fast pace and the action as you would expect from a Sammo film is top notch and gets to show Jet Li let loose with less use of wires and enhancements. Jeff Wolfe is fun as the cowboy Billy who befriends the Chinese, but most of the other Western actors are pretty awful and let the film down at times. It’s a guilty pleasure and well worth watching for the action alone.

The Box set by Eureka has all 3 films remastered in 4K and the results are superb. Crisp strong detail with great colours and no damage or marks noticed. Audio for once has the original sound mixes for all the film, no enhanced 5.1 remixed nonsense and they all sound fine. Subtitles are redone and clear as well as easy to follow.

Extras are plentiful and on all 3 films you get interesting audio commentaries by Hong Kong Cinema expert Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema. All of the commentaries are well worth a listen with facts about the production, cast, directors and a lot more. Hopefully they will get to do more in the future.

Other extras are as follows –

Exclusive new video interview with actor Mike Miller [49 mins]

Exclusive new video interview with actor John Wakefield [29 mins]

The Legend of Wong Fei-Hung [48 mins] a featurette on the legendary folk hero

Archival interview with actor and Shaw Brothers veteran, Yen Shi-kwan [10 mins]

Archival interview with Jet Li [10 mins] Archival interview with Donnie Yen

Archival Q&A with Jet Li [10 mins] Archival interview with director Tsui Hark [23 mins]

Archival interview with actor John Wakefield [11 mins]

Making of Once Upon a Time in China and America [25 mins]

Trailers

Box set exclusive Collector s booklets featuring new essays on all films by James Oliver

Overall a superb box set and finally the films are shown in True HD with original sound and tons of extras. A must buy.

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