Once Upon A Time In China
Directed By:
Tsui Hark
Run Time:
128 mins
Producer: Hong Kong Legends
CANTONESE 5.1, English 5.1
English, Dutch
W/S Subtitles:
2.35:1 Anamorphic
Drama/Martial Arts/Wire-Work - 15 (UK)

Following on my typically backwards viewing habits, I took it upon myself to check out HKL Once Upon A Time In China DVD, after having just viewed Part 2...

Few films made in the past ten years have managed to match the quite exceptional standards set by Once Upon A Time In China. Its absorbing plot, brilliant direction and stunning fight sequences are allied with some remarkable performances from the talented cast.

Although Jet Li made the role of the martial arts master and folk-hero Wong Fei-Hung his own, it's Yen Shi-Kwan's interpretation of "Iron Robe Yim" which becomes the film's real driving force.
Few villains, in Eastern or Western pictures, are given the depth of character which is bestowed upon Yim by Tsui Hark. Iron Robe manages to elicit a great deal of sympathy, as the true motivations of his actions come into focus.
Prostituting his incredible Kung-Fu skills on the streets to earn enough money to survive, Yim is after the one thing that continues to escape him - a better quality of life.
That he feels he must go about trying to fulfil this dream by challenging and defeating the town's resident Kung-Fu teachers, makes him all the more intriguing.
It becomes clear that Yim was once a martial artist in the mould of Wong Fei-Hung. Someone who was a principled fighter and honest man. However, as Yim himself says, nothing in this world is perfect, and this growing pessimism has obviously taken its toll over the years.

Not to be overshadowed, Jet Li provides just as fascinating a portrayal of Wong Fei-Hung.
The air of dignity and humanity which surrounds Jet Li's character makes him a compelling hero, and any suspicions of his talent as an actor are obliterated as he impresses himself on every scene.

Whilst I prefer Part 2, Once Upon a Time In China is still an exceptional film, which incorporates some superb action into its captivating two hour running time.
Tsui Hark has rarely managed to sustain such a high standard since, and for anyone looking for an introduction to Hong Kong cinema, you'd be hard pressed to find better.


Having been so impressed with Once Upon A Time In China 2's excellent visual presentation, the amount of grain visible throughout this DVD (which can become distracting at times) came as a disappointment.
A number of incidental shots, such as those of the Western restaurant's courtyard, look extremely poor. They exhibit a massive amount of grain and are a jarring element to an otherwise very good image.

Detail and colour reproduction is impressive, leaving the wonderfully photographed 'rain fight' between Wong and Yim looking superb, and absolutely wipes the floor with the VHS incarnations available.

Marks and sparkles are kept to a minimum, although they are more noticeable than in HKL more recent transfers.
Black levels are generally excellent, and the muddiness which I feared may be apparent in the film's night-time sequences is never an issue.

Although this is by far the best presentation of the movie available at present, it's a far way from being the definitive version on DVD. The occasional inconsistencies of the image, and the previously mentioned grain, ultimately loses it points.

* A special note should be made of the disc's layer-change. Occuring in the middle of a key sequence, its placement is abysmal, and makes for a jarring transition.*


A very well mixed Cantonese 5.1 soundtrack is provided on the disc. Whilst it's not in the same league as a Hollywood blockbuster's soundtrack, the use of the surrounds for certain scenes, such as the aforementioned 'rain fight', is excellent.

Dialogue remains clear and crisp throughout, with the front left and right speakers perfectly reproducing the film's memorable pieces of music.
It's also pleasing to find that the problems which affected Part 2's soundtrack, such as the muffled sound effects, are not eveident here.


One particularly irritating aspect of the subtitles is their translation of the name of Wong's clinic. Po Chi Lam is translated as Lam Chi Bo.
I've no idea why this should be, as on Part 2's DVD the clinic is correctly called Po Chi Lam.
Also, Wong Fei-Hung's burnt fan, which contains Chinese text, is left unsubtitled.
This leaves the scene, and Wong's reaction to the new meaning of the text, making little sense.

Other than these unnecessary but minor faults, the subtitles are a very good representation of the film's dialogue.
I was concerned HKL might have decided to dumb-down a lot of the dialogue, as with some of their other releases, but thankfully that never manifests itself here.

* A description of the burnt fan is given at the end of this review.*


Special mention must go to the main menu - it's the most impressive I've yet seen on a Hong Kong DVD.
The soundtrack, editing of the clips and overall quality of their integration is superb. In fact, I would have preferred HKL to use this montage as their "UK Promo Trailer", as it does a far better job of representing the film than the HKL trailer does.

The proceeding menus aren't quite as impressive, although each is very well put together.
Button design and layout is very simple, and apart from the awkward Photo Gallery, provides no navigational problems.


Commentary (Bey Logan & Mark King)

Mark King, who plays General Wickens, joins Bey Logan
for yet another high quality commentary.
However, Marks's rather odd attitude (he's never watched a Hong Kong film from start to finish!) means he spends a great deal of time putting down the film, and many aspects of Eastern cinema. Thankfully, his laid-back personality allows Bey to make a number of light jibes at his expense and the two are involved in a number of good spirited arguments. This makes for an engaging commentary which can be listened to in large segments.

Photo Gallery

This awkwardly navigated selection of photos is reasonably interesting, throwing up as it does, the odd behind-the-scenes still.

UK Promo Trailer

A nicely composed trailer which mainly incorporates clips from the film's fight sequences.
Although not utilising the Wong Fei-Hung theme, the featured piece of instrumental music fits the movie well.

Original Theatrical Trailer

The superb Hong Kong trailer utilises the now legendary Wong Fei-Hung theme throughout its 4 minute running time.
One nice aspect of the trailer is that each of the principle characters is introduced, and includes the actor's name, along with their role.
The optional English subtitles are a fantastic inclusion, and although their translation of the dialogue occasionally runs out of synch, they're still a very welcome addition.

Biography Showcase - Jet Li

A 33 minute Jet Li biography, split into ten different "chapters", its coverage is extensive and its execution irritating.
Present once again is the same scrolling text and 'Voice-over Man' combination, which has made me unable to sit through any of HKL similarly designed biographies.

Interview Gallery

Jet Li (10 mins)
Bolstered by the training sequences from The Shaolin Temple, this camcorder interview is fairly entertaining.
Amongst other things, Jet covers his introduction to Wu Shu, his first big break into film, and his views of Wong Fei-Hung.
Short clips of a very young Jet are used to break up the interview, and whilst nothing particularly groundbreaking is proffered, Jet is as likeable as ever.

Yam Sai-Gwoon ( 7 mins)
Filmed on a camcorder in a bustling Dim-Sum restaurant, this brief but interesting chat with the great 'Iron Robe' is made somewhat less appealing due to the fact that it's entirely dubbed.
Sai Gwoon offers up a number of interesting insights into the industry, and although clips from his films are sadly absent, this is still worthy of your time.

Further Attractions

Information and trailers for the following titles:
Hitman • Black Sheep Affair • Drunken Master • Legend Of A Fighter • Dragon Inn • Drive • Armour Of God • The Big Boss •


Tsui Hark's groundbreaking film is an experience made for DVD - superb cinematography, stunning camerawork, and most importantly, an utterly brilliant movie.
Even the deficiencies of the HKL transfer aren't enough to dull this gem of Hong Kong cinema, and there's really only one thing to do after reading this - Buy It!!

MOVIE 10/10

The "Fan scenes" explained...

The five characters which appear on Wong's fan, translated, read "UNEQUAL TREATIES".

After the fire in Fei-Hung's clinic, the fan is burnt, and the furthest character to the right is removed.

This character is the negative particle of the sentence, and so its absence leaves the fan reading

It now becomes apparent why Wong Fei-Hung is so enraged upon finding the burnt fan, adn the reason for his anger towards 13th Aunt (Sap Sam Yee).