Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (5th January 2019).
The Film

"Tsui Hark’s phenomenal Once Upon a Time in China trilogy finally arrives on Blu-ray in the UK from brand new 4K restorations! Starring Jet Li as the real life Cantonese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung, a physical embodiment of traditional Chinese values and moral incorruptibility, this martial-arts epic charts China’s transition into the modern-world as it gradually abandons its old traditions and begins to accept the inevitable encroach of Western cultures.

With action sequences choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, the Once Upon a Time in China series is a glorious high-point in martial-arts filmmaking, and Eureka Classics is proud to present Tsui Hark’s original trilogy, as well as Once Upon a Time in China and America (which saw Jet Li return to the Wong Fei-hung role after a four year gap) for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK in a special Limited Edition Box Set loaded with extra content."


Once Upon a Time in China: The trainer of the Black Flag Army, Wong Fei Hung (Fearless' Jet Li) is tasked with training a local militia in Foshan while his mentor and commander Lord Lau (Zu Warriors' Shun Lau) is sent to Vietnam to get him out of the way due to his outspokenness about the plundering of China through a series of unequal treaties with Western powers. On land where he runs a medical clinic with his three apprentices "Porky" Wing (Crime Story's Kent Cheng), "Bucktooth" So (As Tears Go By's Jacky Cheung), and Kai (Royal Tramp II's Kam-Fai Yuen), Wong finds that the influence of the West has infiltrated his personal life with the arrival of Siu-kwan (Swordsman II's Rosamund Kwan), his thirteenth aunt who is his age but considered his senior, who has traveled to America and picked up an interest in photography. He resists his attraction to her even though she notes that they are only related because her grandfather was a "sworn brother" of his. When he presumes to meet with the governor (Fight Back to School's Chi Yeung Wong), British General Wickens (Operation Condor's Mark King), and American Sino-Pacific Company head Jackson (Mr. Nice Guy's Jonathan Isgar) whose business is recruiting Chinese laborers for goldmining in San Francisco, he is told by the Governor that he has no authority to negotiate and told not to interfere by "foreign devil" Jackson who has his own American martial artist protector in Tiger ('s ). When a fight breaks out between Shaho gang who have been taking collection money from local businesses and Wong's militia when they come to the defense of inexperienced fighter Leung Foon (Project A's Biao Yuen) who was hired to protect the local Peking Opera, the gang scuttle off before the Governor arrives and he arrests the entire militia save Wong and his apprentices. When the gang is extorting a local business, Wong manages to capture their leader (Trinity Goes East's Steve Tartalia) in order to free the militia, but he is unsuccessful when the locals are afraid to bear witness in spite of their admiration of him. When the vengeful Shaho gang burn down the clinic, the governor tries to hold Wong responsible but a Jesuit Priest (Shadow of China's Colin George) corroborates his belief that the Shaho gang was responsible. When they realize they are being hunted by the authorities, the Shaho gang approaches Jackson with the offer to supply prostitutes for the Chinese men in America in exchange for his protection. Jackson comes up with the idea of inviting Wong to a Peking Opera performance and ambushing him, expecting that he will either be killed by the Shaho members disguised as performers, his soldiers, the governor's men, or even the British army for causing a disturbance. The ambush fails but many innocent people are injured or killed when the American soldiers open fire on them, and the Governor foregoes arresting Wong so that he can administer care for the wounded. Among the patients turns up an escapee from Jackson's ship who reveals that the gold mining scheme is actually a trafficking operation and that the laborers are enslaved once they arrive in America where the streets are not "paved with gold." When the governor and his men come searching for the escapee who is held under contract with Jackson's company, he manages to escape with Siu-kwan and "Bucktooth" So while Wong is arrested. In spite of opportunities to escape by the guards who respect him, Wong is determined to serve his sentence until vindicated; that is, until he learns that Siu-kwan has been taken by the Shaho gang to be shipped to America as a whore. Wong and his militia infiltrate Jackson's warehouse only to discover an even more formidable opponent in Iron Robe Yim (Dragon Inn's Shi-Kwan Yen), a fighter who is eager to establish his martial arts school in Foshan by defeating Wong on behalf of Jackson and the Shaho gang despite the misgivings of his one apprentice Leung Foon who has started to realize that he is on the wrong side. Tsui Hark's take on the life of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung – previously the subject of the Jackie Chan breakthrough film Drunken Master and more recently in the higher-budgeted Rise of the Legend – boasts exhilarating fight sequences, beautiful period production design and costumes, and engaging performances but is perhaps a bit too "epic" for its own good with needless subplot "complications" introduced seemingly to bulk the film up to over two hours. The film's political themes and its anti-Western perspective seem to have less to do with Wong Fei Hunt than tensions in China during the period of the film's production that also underlied the Chan's period action film Project AII and its revolution subplot; while the subplot of Wong's acceptance of some Western-isms is as unclear as his feelings about Yim's declaration that their martial arts are no match for guns (Wong does "use" a bullet during the climactic action set-piece). Despite the film's protagonist being a real-life historical figure of some esteem among martial artists, the film is less of a comprehensive biopic than a pulpish adventure, with more installments to come.
image

Once Upon a Time in China II: Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) travels from Foshon to Canton for a medical conference accompanied by his "13th Aunt" Siu-kwan (Rosalind Kwan) and apprentice Leung Foon (The Assassin's Siu Chung Mok). Upon arrival, Siu-kwan's western clothing attract the scorn of some little children and the magnesium flash of her camera while photographing a parade by the White Lotus sect have them believing her to be a sorceress and wanting to sacrifice her until Wong comes to her rescue. While Wong is demonstrating the use of acupuncture with help translating not only his words into English but also the concepts into their western scientific equivalents from respected local doctor SunYat-Sen (Rob-B-Hood's Tielin Zhang), the building is assailed by flaming arrows; whereupon they he learns that the White Lotus sect are fanatics using violence to drive out the "foreign devils" and all western influences. Believing that it is too dangerous in Canton, Wong, Siu-kwan, and Foon are on the verge of leaving when they hear that the foreign language school of Luke Ho-Dung (Five Shaolin Masters' David Chiang) is under attack. They arrive to find the teaching staff slaughtered but the children have managed to hide themselves. Wong is unable to find shelter for the children from businesses that fear reprisal from the White Lotus. Wong goes to military commander Nap-lan (Iron Monkey's Donnie Yen) to request help, but he can spare no men with the telegraph house under attack by White Lotus and the possibility of an attack on the front from the French; however, Siu-kwan is able to get the children into the British Embassy where foreign merchants have also taken shelter. After discovering what Wong has done for the children, Luke helps Wong and Foon gain entrance into the embassy, and Sun is able to convince the British Consul (Paul Fonoroff) of the value of Wong's non-western medicine in assisting his surgery on some of the wounded merchants. Upon learning that Sun and Luke are part of a group conspiring to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, Nap-lan tries to arrest them but the British Consul blocks his entry. When Nap-lan plots with the White Lotus, Siu-kwan and Foon must help Sun round up the members of the revolutionary party and get them to safety while Wong and Luke take on the Godfather Gao (Black Mask's Xin Xin Xiong), the high priest of White Lotus who faith purportedly makes him invincible to bullets.

Although made only a year after the first film, Once Upon a Time in China II is a more stylistically-assured, leaner, and meaner effort – literally in the case of the latter with the White Lotus sect's viciousness on graphic display along with some violence inflicted upon children – benefitting not only from a bigger budget but slicker camerawork and a less episodic script but also Mok shouldering all of the film's comic relief while the relationship between Wong and Siu-kwan takes a back seat to the action. While there are some scuffles early on, Wong spends more time dodging flaming arrows and learning of intrigues, with the film's energy packed into two consecutive climactic fights: the first pitting Li against his own stunt double Xiong, and the second the ultimate battle between Li and Yen that is quite a formidable showdown in which culminates in the kind of sort of arterial spray not seen since the gory heyday of seventies Hong Kong martial arts cinema. The overall product is an improvement, but also unfortunately the high point of the series.

In Once Upon a Time in China III, Wong, Siu-kwan, and Foon arrive in Beijing just as the Empress Dowager and Prime Minister Li (Cunzhuang Ge) have announced a massive Lion Dance competition as a show of force against the foreigners who have carved out pieces of their country for their empires. The sight of Siu-kwan's western clothing attracts less attention this time around than western women dressed in Chinese clothes; and Siu-kwan discovers amidst the Russian population a former classmate turned diplomat Tumanovsky (Fight Back to School 2's John Wakefield) who flirts with her to Wong's jealousy, partially due to his misunderstanding of their familial relationship. Wong arrives at the Ten Tigers Association of his father Wong Kei-Ying (Once Upon a Time in China's Shun Lau) in the aftermath of an attack by Chiu Tin-bak (Jin Chiu) and his association who are using violent intimidation tactics to make sure that they are the only ones from their area to compete. Wong forbids Foon and Wong's father his students from seeking revenge, believing that martial arts should only be used for self-defense; however, Wong sees that the demonstrations of the lion dance in the streets have turned into gang wars with Chiu's henchman Clubfoot Seven (Once Upon a Time in China II's Xin Xin Xiong) one of the key aggressors until he finds himself what it is to be weak after an accident caused by Foon makes him no longer of use to Chiu. When Wong tamps down the fighting between the other groups and gets them to agree to petition the Prime Minister to call off the competition due to the violence, Chiu tries to have Siu-kwan abducted. Chiu makes further attempts on Wong's life, but Tumanovsky's gift of a motion picture camera to Siu-kwan puts her in danger from another party when it captures something that was not meant to be seen.

Coming quickly on the heels of the second film and boasting Dolby Stereo sound – Hong Kong making the upgrade from mono to surround sound just as the West was moving on to Dolby Digital – Once Upon a Time in China III nevertheless feels more like a placeholder film in spite of its attractive production values. The action set-pieces are large scale but only the middle of the film one in which Wong fights off all of Chiu's men on an oil-slick floor while his rivals all have tacked shoes is particularly invigorating; the bookending fights in the town square and the Forbidden City court against all of the lion dancers are energetic but confusingly covered with most of the key fighters underneath lion heads and extras falling by kicks that do not always seem to make contact. Lau's villain is so over-the-top that the impact of his violence does not resonate while the secondary villain almost seems incidental. Of the white supporting characters throughout the series, the Russian Tumanovsky is no more deeply etched but gets more to do, less as romantic rival than a supportive voice to that of Siu-kwan about the danger of Wong's refusal to understand Western advancements, here not only in the moving picture but the steam engine that Wong's own father has purchased. Li would leave the series and would be replaced by Wenzhuo Zhao (True Legend) for the next two entries Once Upon a Time in China IV and Once Upon a Time in China 5 but would return for the final entry.

Once Upon a Time in China and America opens with Wong, Siu-kwan (going by the Western name Diana in the English dub), and Xiong's Seven (who became a devoted follower of Wong in the third film and buddy of Foon in the next two films before replacing him here) as they arrive in the Old West where So (Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky's Kwok-Pong Chan) has reestablished the Po Chi Lam clinic. On the journey to town, Wong insists despite the wariness of his fellow travelers that they stop and pick up Billy (Bloodsport 2's Jeff Wolfe), a wandering cowboy without his horse and dying of thirst. When the stage coach stops for lunch, the group is raided by Indians. Billy, Wong, Seven, and Siu-kwan defend the rest of the party but a runaway coach sends Wong, Siu-kwan, and Seven into the river where Wong sustains a head injury. While Seven and Siu-kwan are recovered and taken to Po Chi Lam for treatment, Wong wakes up in an Indian camp. Most of the tribe are curious about him, but chief's son Fierce Eagle (Escape to Grizzly Mountain's Jason De Hoyos) is distrustful of Wong who has no memory of his identity but has retained his fighting instincts and skill. When a brave from another tribe (Dragon Fury's T.J. Storm) arrives with his party and threatens to destroy them if the chief does not give his daughter Sarah (Twin Peaks: The Return's Chrysta Bell) to him for marriage, Fierce Eagle is injured and it is Wong who sends the other tribe fleeing; whereupon Wong is made a member of the tribe and Sarah makes romantic overtures to him. Meanwhile, Seven and Siu-kwan find their efforts to search for Wong hindered by Mayor Brady and his deputies who insist that the Chinese keep to their own side of town although the slightly more sympathetic Sheriff overlooks their trespasses. When Seven helps Billy foil a bank robbery, Brady makes Billy a deputy and he hopes to make things easier for the Chinese population. Brady had arranged the robbery with the bank's owner to pay for his loans with insurance fraud; during his next attempt, however, he hides half of the money for himself and the bandit leader (Mr. Nice Guy's Joseph Sayah) is not pleased when he reads in the paper that they made off with only half-a-million dollars. Brady then frames the Chinese as a scapegoat by planting some of the money and agrees to free the others if seven step forward and confess and be hung. Noble Wong, of course, steps forward; but his date with the noose coincides with the bandit leader's return to town for bloody vengeance.

The last of the series has less in common with the earlier entries and plays more like a cross between The Quick and the Dead and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Director Sammo Hung (Ip Man) apes the American Western genre with sun-parched landscapes and cross-cutting close-ups that are more Sergio Leone than Hark (it almost seems like Xiong's head tilt in all of his stances would draw less attention to itself with Hark's canted framing). The amnesia subplot is no more riveting than Chan's take in Who am I? and it seems to have been included firstly to delay Wong's arrival in town – thus providing more time to depict the treatment of the Chinese by the mayor who turns out to be both racist and corrupt – and to give the Wong/Siu-kwan romance some drama – but the action scenes are more exhilarating this time around and have a visceral impact, with the climactic face off between Li and Sayah a standout. While it may not be a great closer to the series, it is still far more entertaining than the later Shanghai Noon and its sequel Shanghai Noon.
image

Video

Despite its reputation, Once Upon a Time in China went unreleased theatrically in the United States while its roughly twenty-minute shorter English-dubbed export version got a theatrical release in the UK. When Hong Kong cinema became more in vogue stateside in the late nineties, the film made its DVD debut from Columbia Tri-Star in 2001 with an 4:3 letterboxed transfers of the Hong Kong original and the export version both upscaled to 16:9 with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English mono tracks (this version was also issued in the three-disc Once Upon a Time in America Collection with the other two films). All three films were reissued in 2003 in the two-disc Once Upon a Time in America Trilogy which dropped the English dub tracks for all three films. In the U.K., Hong Kong Legends released the film with a superior but not perfect anamorphic transfer with 5.1 English and Cantonese tracks (also issued in a trilogy set). The second film was released directly to DVD stateside from Columbia Tri-Star separately in an edition with separate Hong Kong and English export versions in upscaled anamorphic transfers from 4:3 letterbox – the Taiwanese version apparently started with a recap of scenes from the first film – followed by the aforementioned trilogy set which featured a new transfer while dropping the English version. In the UK, Hong Kong Legends and then Cine Asia released identical editions featuring the anamorphic master and 5.1 Cantonese and English audio. The story is the same for the third film with an upscaled Columbia Tri-Star original and overhauled trilogy reissue stateside, and virtually identical Hong Kong Legends and Cine Asia editions. Kam & Ronson's Hong Kong Blu-rays featured 7.1 Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks and English subtitles, and they were surprisingly not an upscale unlike some of the other Fortune Star masters. Eureka was able to take advantage of 4K restorations of the first three films for their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray, and the color schemes are in keeping with the previous masters, erasing the yellow cast of the DVD-era transfers while also being brighter (and more so here). This may give the first film a slightly antiseptic look but it seems in keeping with the nineties era photography (which is admittedly a bit less slick than the sequels) while the sharper-looking and more colorful second film and third films seem to benefit more from the new scan and restoration.
image

Once Upon a Time in China and America had had a more iffy release history in English-speaking countries. In America, the early Tai Sang DVD was not only non-anamorphic but cropped the J-D-C Scope production to 1.85:1 while the version in the three-disc Dragon Dynasty 5 Movie Collection was anamorphic but cropped to 1.78:1. In the UK, the film suffered similarly with M.I.A.'s DVD featuring a separate 1.78:1 anamorphic English-dubbed version and a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 Cantonese version. Once again, Kam & Ronson's Blu-ray was derived from an actual HD master, and it is apparently this master that is also the source for Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray. The master easily bests the DVD editions for the reasons stated above, and the image is clean and crisp-looking for the most part (the opening logos exhibit a bit of jitter which clears up early on); as such, it is just as worthy a presentation despite being sort of an extra included with the trilogy (and only so because it features Li).

Audio

Once Upon a Time in China: The first film was released originally in mono with Cantonese and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks on the two US DVD releases while the UK editions had the Fortune Star 5.1 Cantonese and English remixes. The Hong Kong Blu-ray dropped original mono for 7.1 Dolby True HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX remixes while Eureka has included the Cantonese track in LPCM 1.0 along with Cantonese and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks and the English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (either mono elements no longer remain for the English track or the dub was just so bad that Eureka felt that this would be the place to demonstrate just how lacking the Fortune Star remixes are). The Cantonese mono track gets the job done, but the slightly fuller-sounding stereo tracks (presumably downmixes of the remixes) provide a bit more umph (a stereo mix of the theme song may have be used for the remixes). The second film arrived on American DVD with 5.1 Mandarin and Cantonese (along with English stereo) and the 5.1 tracks were carried over to the trilogy release while the Hong Kong Blu-ray was also given 7.1 mixes. Eureka includes Cantonese and Mandarin LPCM 1.0 mono tracks but also a Cantonese LPCM 2.0 Stereo track in addition to the best-to-avoid English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The third film was the first Dolby Stereo entry, and it also arrived on American DVD with 5.1 remixes and 7.1 tracks on the Hong Kong disc; which is why it is odd that the Cantonese track is LPCM 1.0 while the Mandarin is LPCM 2.0 Stereo (the English track is again DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), although the latter two tracks suggest that the early (for Hong Kong) surround mix was not a real powerhouse. While the DVD video transfers of Once Upon a Time in China and America – which was released theatrically in Dolby Digital – may have been lacking, the audio tracks were usually either Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, surround, or 5.1 upmixes; yet, Eureka's Blu-ray features Cantonese LPCM 1.0 mono, Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Stereo, English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (the Cantonese stereo tracks could not be located for the third film, and this may be true of China and America. Newly-translated optional English subtitles are provided for all; yet, the fourth film includes two sets of English subtitles, one for the Cantonese, and the other for the Mandarin which apparently has some additional dialogue not on the Cantonese or English track.
image

Extras

Eureka have understandably dropped the Bey Logan Hong Kong Legends tracks for all three films in favor of a news ones by actor and martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema. Of the first film, they discuss the underlying political elements, cultural issues like the family relationship between Wong and his "aunt", the theme song which became synonymous with Wong Fei Hung thanks to Hark's series (even though it had been used in Drunken Master, with Chan recording the iteration used for the second entry in this series), and Yuen being told that his character would be the hero with Wong Fei Hung the side character (which is believable since Foon does have a character arc here and the extras for all three films suggest that the script was more of a guideline with dialogue written and rewritten the day of the shoot). Of the second film, they both are in agreement that it is the better entry, more cohesive and streamlined, with more assured camerawork; indeed, the compare the first film to Chan's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and the second to Drunken Master. They provide some background information on the White Lotus sect which had a real historical existence but would generally be depicted with various liberties as convenient to the plots of various films in which they appeared (noting that the antiforeigner aspect is confined to this film and that the Mortal Kombat game series features a White Lotus sect member as one of the heroes). They discuss Mok's more comical interpretation of Foon and the love triangle aspect that carries through the rest of the series and note that Xin Xin Xiong had served as Li's stunt double in earlier films. Of the third film, they give the opinion that it is not as good as either of the first two films, and that it underperformed at the box office possibly as a result of fatigue not only in the series itself but of the subsequent knockoffs (which may be why Li quit the series and next played Wong in the parody Last Hero in China). They also note that the film was not shot on location, but that Beijing Film Studio had a standing full-scale replica of the Forbidden City. Most interesting is the discussion of the white actors in the film, many of whom worked solely in Hong Kong productions, including Colin George from the first film who had been an English teacher in Hong Kong, Tartalia who appeared in a handful of martial arts films including the Taiwanese spaghetti western Trinity Goes East and the truly execrable The King of the Kickboxers before working as a stuntman on American shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayser and Angel, another actor from the second film who was one of the first in Hong Kong to reveal he had AIDS and was stigmatized for it, and Wakefield in the third film who had first come to Hong Kong as a Mormon missionary fluent in Cantonese.
image

Ported over from the Hong Kong Legends discs are the The Legend of Wong Fei-hung Part 1 (12:59), The Legend of Wong Fei-hung Part 2 (15:32), and The Legend of Wong Fei-hung Part 3 (13:28) interviewing descendants of the folk hero, martial artists inspired by him, the curator of the Wong Fei Hung museum, visiting places in China where legends have formed around him, discussing him in popular culture, and his fighting techniques. The first disc also includes an interview with Yen Shi-Kwan (7:50) discussing his early work as a fight master and his work in the first film and in Iron Monkey. The interview with Jet Li (10:35) seems to have been shot some time before the first film with a very young Li musing on his pre-fame film career. The theatrical trailer (4:31) is also included. The second film includes "Mike Miller: Memories of Once Upon A Time in China 2" (51:11) in which the actor recalls getting into martial arts as a puny teenager in Australia, being inspired by the seventies kung-fu movies and having to find the Hong Kong new wave of films in Chinatown shops, and teaching martial arts before selling up and deciding to go to Hong Kong to find work as an actor, visiting studios in person with a show reel before someone passed it on to an agent. Of Once Upon a Time in China II, he recalls playing multiple soldiers in the embassy attack scene, a doctor during the scene, and also the doctor in the conference scene who gets shot with an arrow (achieved with a reel flaming arrow with only a piece of wood to protect his chest). An Audience with Jet Li (10:53) was shot around the time of Li's appearance in Lethal Weapon 4 and his plans to make another film with Mel Gibson. More interesting is the interview with Donnie Yen (16:28) who recalls that there was virtually no choreography in his fight scene with Li, giving both performers freedom to display their art and engage in a friendly rivalry. The theatrical trailer (3:08) is also included.

The third disc features the new interview "John Wakefield: Memories of Once Upon A Time in China 3" (29:14) in which he recalls being assigned as a Mormon to Hong Kong and learning Cantonese walking door-to-door but gaining fluency while studying at the University of Texas and then working for a furniture sales business in San Francisco before deciding to return to Hong Kong and make a go of it as an actor. Of the film, he recalls seeing no script and that the dialogue was written and rewritten on the day of the shoot, so he was more focused on memorizing dialogue in Cantonese than creating a character. He also appears in an older interview (10:56) – taken from the Cine Asia UK edition – in which Wakefield, looking much younger, covers the same material although reveals that his character was meant to fight with Li during the climax but his martial arts was not up to snuff. The interview with Tsui Hark (22:56) comes from the same disc and finds him discussing the characterization of Wong Fei Hung in the third film as upholding tradition but also seeming rather stubborn and even stupid at times. Also included is a behind-the-scenes montage (2:51) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:56). The fourth film – housed in the case with the third film features no commentary but does include The Making of Once Upon a Time in China and America (25:05) ported over from the Hong Kong discs and the previous UK DVD and a pair of theatrical trailers (3:23 and 3:50). Not provided for review were the booklets by James Oliver housed in the three cases (Once Upon a Time in China and America is covered in the booklet for the third film, the disc of which is housed in the same case).

Overall

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.