Virtue Is Often Found Among The Lowly: Once Upon A Time In China (1991)

It seems that at this point in the cinematic narrative there is a Once Upon A Time film for pretty much every important country in the world, as well as a handful of less well established global spaces.  However, even considering this I have managed to not catch up with some of the icons of this particularly titled choice.  Indeed, prior to viewing Once Upon A Time in China, I had only seen the smooze-fest that was Once Upon a Time in Tibet and the pensive, yet haunting film from later year, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  The West, America and, until last night, China had failed to make the cut.  Considering that the film situates itself in the years of the Qing dynasty and stars Jet Li, who continues to amaze me as a performer, it seemed like a more than appropriate film to include in my month of martial arts films.  Indeed, there are few films with more of a sense of grandeur and depth than the Chinese period piece, particularly in an age of digital and CGI cinema, which affords a film an ability to take on an ethereal and otherworldly quality.  What is amazing when considering Once Upon A Time in China is that there are moments in this film that are just as thrilling and captivating as the best moments of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Hell, the opening dragon dance sequence and the thirty or so odd minute fight sequence that bookend this film are some of the best of the marathon thus far.  These are all wonderful things about the film and would be more than enough to carry them along as a fun historical film that borrows from the genre trappings, but Once Upon A Time in China goes farther than being a simple matter of spectacle and indeed offers a film that comes to the forefront in a consideration and critique of the imperialist activities of the United States and Britain and how this particular invasion of Western Culture upon the varied regions of China extended to create inner-national animosity, while pushing a country into modernity in an uncomfortable and disjointed manner. Yet, considering that it is, at its heart, a film about the heroism of China and its people, this imperialism is acknowledge and deconstructed in a manner that could only work in a post-colonial mindset.

As noted earlier, the film focuses on the experiences of people living under the troubling imperialist shadow of Britain and America during the Qing dynasty.  However, the film looks specifically at the actions and experiences of Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), a noted folk hero of China and master of martial arts.  Wong is attempting to keep his disciples and his town in general during the contentious occupation of the various colonial bodies, hoping that by doing so they will eventually remove themselves from occupation of the area, and afford China a means to grow further independently.  However, Wong becomes aware of the major effects Westernization seem to be having on his country when he sees a romantic interest from his youth Siu-kawn (Rosamund Kwan), whom he refers to formally as "13th Aunt."  Siu-kwan has not only begun to speak English frequently, she has also appropriated the hairstyles and dress of Western culture, even seeming to possess the features of "traditional" western beauty as well.  Overarching Wong's struggles to prove himself to Siu-kwan are the very real issues of violent colonial bodies attempting to enact their will upon the Chinese people.  In many ways the imperial bodies, particularly the British men show little concern for their misuse of the people in the space, attacking and beating them as they see fit, all the while invading their spaces to replace structures with icons of Western decadence, the incorporation of a French restaurant being one wild example.  Indeed, one can even see the less abrasive figures of priests in the narrative as being problems, because although they do care for the people, one even sacrificing his body to save Wong, it is done so with the understanding that he is an authority figure.  As such, the narrative begins to look at how Wong, as an individual fighting against the emergence of imperial power in China relates to his fellow Chinese men, wherein his friends and students like Bucktooth So (Jacky Cheung) and Porky Wing (Kent Cheng) share his ideals, but have appropriated a certain degree of Western influence, Bucktooth even speaking relatively fluent English or suits instead of Chinese formalwear.  Yet, when it is discovered that a group of imperialist figures, as well as Chinese men are involved in high scale human trafficking, Wong and his school change their opinion on their indirect involvement in the imperialist discussion, becoming attuned to the real oppression occurring realizing that fighting is a necessity when the "influence" of an outside force oversteps its presence.

It is precisely this overstepping of boundaries that makes Once Upon A Time in China a brilliant text in a post-colonial discourse.  While there are many wonderful media outputs in the realm of colonial critiques, many spend time completely reviling its existence while somehow suggesting that it is a memory that can be removed from a nation space.  As many post-colonial theorist note, however, bodies in these spaces are irreversibly affected by the oppression and can not exist in a state of mind that is "before" the colonial presence.  Indeed, once the imperialist body has acted itself upon a space, it is near impossible for a person of even generations later to not be affected by its aftermath.  A film like Once Upon A Time in China manages to realize this idea.  The characters, seem to accept that since colonial occupation has occurred to believe that a case in which it will disappear could follow is absolutely foolish.  Instead, the characters, particularly Bucktooth and Siu-kwan choose to learn the elements of the imperialist force that will only benefit them, particularly the extension of a new language.  The style and other elements which occur are more cultural hybridity than oppression, although a case could be made that given their covering of the colonized body it takes on a degree of oppression.  The narrative, however, rejects this by showing characters who are indeed intent on only exploiting the Chinese bodies, or completely ignoring their presence in a situation, as is the case when the British and American soldiers begin a shootout completely dismissive of the Chinese royalty in the midst of the battle.  Considering this reading, Wong becomes a figure of unadulterated nativeness, his opening dance inside the Dragon kite affirm his nearly mythic attachment to his nation's traditions, yet, as much as he struggles to keep the affects of imperialism from invading upon his world, he accepts the inevitability when those around him slowly appropriate English words and clothing into their daily engagements.  One is led to believe that in the closing moments of the film when he is wearing a suit that he is doing so by choice, because in the process he still possesses the skills of ancient martial arts and an unwavering concern for what is best for his people and his nation as a whole.

Key Scene:  The dancing dragon scene is truly something of cinematic wonder, that sets up a work of lofty ambition, which, for the most part, delivers.

A great film to seek out for rental and yet another Jet Li film to possess marvelous cinematography.

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