Once Upon a Time in China
dir. Tsui Hark
Opens Fri June 22
Cinema 21

Damn those Chinese Communists!!

Oh, I'm not talking about some mamby-pamby Tibetan repression, environmental catastrophes, and/or Falun Gongings. I'm talking about the way they managed to drive practically every decent filmmaking talent out of Hong Kong after they took it over--without even really trying. Just think--no Deng Xiaoping, no Rush Hour 2. Or something.

Luckily, the diaspora shows signs of easing up. Producer-director Tsui Hark's recent return homeward felicitously resulted in Time and Tide, which played last week at Cinema 21. It's also fortunate that some of Hong Kong's finest films have managed to get the treatment and presentation they deserve, as is the case with Tsui's 1991 Once Upon a Time in China.

In addition to being the film that cemented Tsui's reputation as an original and profitable cinematic talent (after the successes of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Peking Opera Blues), OUATIC made an international star out of Jet Li, who has since become another unfortunate Hollywood exile, reduced to co-starring with Bridget Fonda.

In this seminal Asian action extravaganza, Jet plays Wong Fei-hung, a popular Chinese hero and the subject of dozens, if not hundreds of other films. Wong is a martial arts teacher and all-around do-gooder in the late 19th century, when the forces of the Western powers were hell-bent on converting, addicting, and enslaving the Chinese people. As the unofficial head of the local militia in Canton, Wong is outraged, first when an innocent shopkeeper is shot by British troops, and then when his favorite "aunt" is kidnapped to be sold into prostitution in America.

Although he initially opposes violence, Wong eventually kicks some major ass on his quest to rescue Aunt Yee, see that justice is done, and preserve Chinese integrity against the encroaching foreign devils. At his side, offering what bungling assistance they can, are sidekicks whose faces should seem familiar to regular Hong Kong action fans: Biao Yuen, a frequent Jackie Chan co-star, and Jackie Cheung, who's appeared in films by Kar-wai Wong as well as Jon Woo's A Bullet in the Head.

The fight scenes are, needless to say, amazing, but they're not wall-to-wall enough to compose the movie's entire appeal. A couple of things set OUATIC apart from the zillions of other Mandarin-voiced kung fu pictures that have flooded these shores in its wake. One major factor is humor. Like Jackie Chan's movies, this one doesn't take itself too seriously, despite the heavy, nationalistic subject matter. Pratfalls, shenanigans, and even some verbal horseplay keep the proceedings from bogging down, frequently at the expense of the Western (or Westernized) characters.

The other factor in OUATIC's favor is its slickness of production. It may still seem a little lo-fi by Hollywood standards, but Tsui Hark's greatest accomplishment was demonstrating that spending a little extra cash on martial arts films was worth the investment. This groundbreaking hit was to earlier entries in its genre as Star Wars was to Silent Running.

But Portland Mercury, you're saying, I'm a nut about Hong Kong cinema and I've already seen this movie! Why are you telling me all this? Well, action fan, the version of Once Upon a Time in China that's playing this week is a spruced-up edition with new subtitles, that's why. Granted, even this new version has been released on video, but the VHS release is panned-and-scanned and DUBBED, for God's sake. The DVD is widescreen and subtitled, but this movie needs to be seen big-style.

Plus, if you're really a Hong Kong movie nut, you know that your real mission is to go see this film, whether for the 4th or 14th time. If you've somehow missed this one, get off your lazy American gluteus and check it out!

Damn those lazy Americans!!