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Many Approaches to Once Upon a Time in China

by Ethan Tussey

by Laurel Ahnert for IN MEDIA RESThe purpose of this post is to make a case for why Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is a good case study for thinking about the intersections of the martial arts genre, Hong Kong cinema (or Chinese cinema broadly), and the globalization of the movie industry.

Considering the film from the angle of globalization, Hong Kong is itself a cosmopolitan production center because of its colonial history, enabling the flow of money and ideas between the east and west. Moreover, Bruce Lee (who grew up in San Francisco) and Jackie Chan in the 1970s/80s, became international stars. Chan would eventually move easily between the continents, producing popular content for decades. Lee's films, taking place in western settings and coproduced by Hollywood so that from its inception kung fu is a global genre. The star of Once Upon a Time in China, Jet Li, is an inheritor of Lee and Chan's legacy, with the Once Upon a Time in China series contributing to his star status. Li, like his forebears, would easily move between industries.

Considering the film from an industry angle, Once Upon a Time in China arrived on the scene during a boom in production and popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Director Tsui Hark is a member of the Hong Kong New Wave that defined the stylistically polished, technologically sophisticated and generally entertaining films of the period. This preceded a critical time for the Hong Kong film industry, which suffered a decline in the mid-1990s, struggling to compete with Hollywood's global domination.

Thinking about genre, kung fu has roots in Chinese film history, and thus provides a window into the past for contemporary film students. The genre is known for its hand-to-hand combat fighting styles, which place the spectacle of the athletic human body as a main attraction, rather than a deep exploration of character psychology. Much faster than the average Hollywood film, kung fu films emphasize speed in the kinetic fight sequences, rapid-fire dialogue and accelerated editing. This is accentuated by the film's stylistic techniques, which aside from editing and performance, includes a highly mobile camera and inventive camera angles that Spike Lee has called Chinese angles, which are designed to accentuate the dynamism of the sequence.

Once Upon a Time in China has these elements, of course, but it also has elements of another primary martial arts subgenre of Hong Kong cinema, which is wuxia, known for its sword fighting, supernatural elements, and acrobatic movements. Wuxia goes as far back as early Chinese silent cinema, linking the flashy contemporary films like Hero (2002) to Chinese cinema's deep past. Once Upon a Time in China, however, sits at the intersection of these different trends in Hong Kong cinema, made at a crossroads moment in the early 1990s that sets the stage for director Ying xiong, and his contemporaries.

Martial Arts Cinema and China

A clip from Once Upon a Time in China

from Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Creator: Tsui Hark
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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