This film, being the first one of Once Upon a Time in China series, puts Wong Fei-hung in the middle of historical events that he was not actually a part of (Barkdull, 2017). All we know about Wong is based on folktales, and that leaves the director Tsui Hark a huge space for imagination. Even though I personally think Tsui was being so ambitious that he blended too many elements in this film, he did a great job conveying the Chinese national spirit by making the character of Wong Fei-hung step out of history and into legend. As Bordwell commented on Tsui’s films, Hong Kong cinema becomes a Chinese feast, spiced by entertainment traditions and replenished by an artist’s pragmatic and restless imagination (Bordwell, 2011).
As I praise Jackie Chan on his ability to use everything around him as his weapon, I highly acknowledge the innovation of fight scenes in this film and Tsui’s efforts to highlight the action comedy feature. Signboards, pork, music instruments like violins, knives and forks, umbrellas, and ladders were all exquisitely designed into the fights to catch the audience’s eyes. I especially like the scene where Wong Fei-hung fought against a bunch of people with an umbrella. The umbrella was used to stamp his enemy in the foot; it also blocked the boiling water attack. It was even a parachute for Wong to reach the ground safely. The flexible handling of the umbrella makes the fight scene interesting and dynamic, and it helps build Wong’s character as a high-level kung-fu master.
Besides the fight scenes, I can tell Tsui’s dedication to the details in this film. A lot of seemingly pointless details carried deeper meanings. For example, after Master Yim performed his iron vest kung-fu, he kneeled down to pick up the coins from the audience. Some prostitute threw a yellow flower at him, and it was left in the pouring rain. The director gave two close-up shots at the flower for about five seconds each. The use of analogy may suggest the yellow flower represented the yellow-skinned Chinese people. It hit by the rain foils the solemn atmosphere and reflects the serious turmoil in China at that time.
Barkdull, N. (2017, August). Jet Li Film Review: Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon a Time in China Series. Retrieved from Jet Li: https://www.jetli.com/2017/08/jet-li-wong-fei-hung-once-upon-a-time-in-china
Bordwell, D. (2011). Planet Hong Kong - Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (2nd ed). Irvington Way Institute Press.