Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Directed by Tsui Hark

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* *

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Colorful, energetic, and virtually plotless, Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China is a typical Hong Kong action film, despite its generally higher than average production values.

The story revolves around a number of exploits from the frequently filmed life of Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), a physician and martial artist living in the last years of the Ch'ing dynasty. In Once Upon a Time in China, he divides his time between fighting organized crime and Western imperialism and being embarrassed by Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), with whom he is smitten.

Regrettably, while Once Upon a Time in China is frequently entertaining, it is forgettable or tedious just as often.

A number of the actors appearing in the film demonstrate very little talent, although, happily, Jet Li is competent in his portrayal of its moral, heroic protagonist. Li's greatest ability is not his acting, however, but his skill at martial arts, which is well displayed in the film's various action sequences. These, I should add, although never stunning, are consistently well done. A few are even genuinely exhilarating.

While most of the movie is neither impressively good nor execrably bad, it does, nonetheless, have a fair number of faults. Much of Once Upon a Time in China is meandering and the film is certainly too long. Tighter editing could have produced a more coherent whole. What is more, a large part of the movie's excessive length comes from the frequent and inept attempts at humor with which Hark has burdened his work.

The absence of such faults would not have made Once Upon a Time in China a great film, but their presence does detract from what merit it has.

Review by Keith Allen

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