One of the pinnacles of Hong Kong cinema’s 1990s golden age, the Once Upon a Time in China series set a new standard for martial-arts spectacle and launched action star Jet Li to international fame. It brings to vivid life the colorful world of China in the late nineteenth century, an era of immense cultural and technological change, as Western imperialism clashed with tradition and public order was upended by the threats of foreign espionage and rising nationalism. Against this turbulent backdrop, one man—the real-life martial-arts master, physician, and folk hero Wong Fei-hung—emerges as a noble protector of Chinese values as the country hurtles toward modernity. Conceived by Hong Kong New Wave leader Tsui Hark, this epic cycle is not only a dazzling showcase for some of the most astonishing action set pieces ever committed to film but also a rousing celebration of Chinese identity, history, and culture.
Once Upon a Time in China 1991
Writer-producer-director Tsui Hark’s sprawling vision of a changing nineteenth-century China begins with this riotously entertaining epic, a blockbuster hit that cemented Jet Li’s status as the greatest martial-arts superstar of his generation. Li displays his stunning, fast-yet-fluid fighting style as the legendary martial-arts teacher and doctor Wong Fei-hung, who, with a band of loyal disciples, battles a host of nefarious forces—foreign and local alike—threatening Chinese sovereignty as British and American imperialists encroach upon the Mainland. Once Upon a Time in China’s breathtaking blend of kung fu, comedy, romance, and melodrama climaxes in a whirlwind guns vs. fists finale that is also a thrilling affirmation of Chinese cultural identity.
Once Upon a Time in China II
Once Upon a Time in China II 1992
Having chronicled the social upheaval wrought by Western influence in the opening chapter of the Once Upon a Time in China series, Tsui Hark turned his attention to the perils of unchecked nationalism in his sensational follow-up, the rare sequel to equal the dizzying highs of the original. Jet Li returns to the role of Wong Fei-hung, who here takes on the diabolical White Lotus Sect, a virulently xenophobic cult whose anti-foreigner sentiments unleash a wave of destructive violence. Fellow martial-arts icon Donnie Yen dazzles in a star-making turn as Wong’s nemesis, who faces off with the hero in a battle royal that showcases the kinetic brilliance of revered Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping.
Once Upon a Time in China III
Once Upon a Time in China III 1993
Jet Li’s third outing as the storied martial-arts hero Wong Fei-hung in the Once Upon a Time in China films is an exhilarating celebration of Chinese culture peppered with a dash of international espionage. This time around, Wong travels to Beijing, where he finds himself drawn into the intrigue surrounding an epic lion-dance competition, spars with a Russian rival for the affections of his beloved Thirteenth Aunt (Rosamund Kwan), and fights to foil a foreign plot to assassinate the real-life Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang. The eye-popping lion-dance set pieces—which combine vibrantly colored, fire-breathing pageantry with martial-arts mayhem—rank among the most visually spectacular achievements of the series.
Once Upon a Time in China IV
Once Upon a Time in China IV 1993
Though it picks up the narrative thread where the previous installment left off, Once Upon a Time in China IV introduces a new director, action choreographer Yuen Bun, and star, Vincent Zhao, who takes over the role of Wong Fei-hung from Jet Li. Once again, foreign skulduggery and a violent nationalist group—in the form of the fierce women warriors known as the Red Lantern Sect—swirl around a magnificent lion-dance competition, with Wong caught in the fray. Toning down the comedic and romantic elements of the first three films in favor of almost wall-to-wall kung-fu action, the fourth entry is the leanest and meanest of the series, highlighted by a gravity-defying fight atop a field of collapsing, domino-like planks.
Once Upon a Time in China V
Once Upon a Time in China V 1994
Tsui Hark returned to the director’s chair for the rollicking comedic adventure Once Upon a Time in China V, in which the indomitable hero Wong Fei-hung (Vincent Zhao) tangles with a band of ruthless, finger-removing pirates who are exploiting the political chaos created by the invasion of foreigners in order to terrorize the Chinese coast. The fist-and-foot kung-fu set pieces—including a showstopping, gold-hued melee set in a warehouse of pirate treasure—are plentiful, but Tsui ups the ante by introducing acrobatic gunplay to the proceedings, infusing this furiously entertaining crowd-pleaser with a bracing jolt of John Woo–style bullet ballet mayhem.
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