Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kung Fu Night! Once Upon a Time in China

One of the best kung fu films I've seen yet.

Once Upon a Time in China, starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, and Rosamund Kwan. Directed, and produced by Tsui Hark. Written by Tsui Hark, Yeun Kai-chi, Leung Yiu-Ming, and Tang Pik-Yin. American release by Columbia Tristar Home Video. Runtime 134 minutes. Rated R for violence.

See other reviews here.

One of the great appeals of kung fu is its rawness. Images which would be merely sadistic or silly in isolation can, when combined with decent story-telling, be supremely powerful. The kung fu films that don't make it to wide release in the U.S. are probably the best; they have a low-budget grittiness that adds to their power, a power that flashier, slicker films like The Matrix and Hero, much as I love them, can't capture.

Once Upon a Time in China is one of those movies that's sometimes hard to watch. The violence starts out relatively mild, but by the end of the film, the wire-fu is brutal and bloody as well as inventive, yet it is watchable because, unlike many kung fu films, this one has a real plot. It involves the legendary hero Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), who is both a medical doctor and teacher at a kung fu school at the end of the nineteenth century, when China is getting cut up by Western imperialists. In particular, the Americans are a problem, for they are trying to seduce Chinese to America, claiming they can strike it rich in the California gold rush, but really the Americans are planning to enslave them.

At the same time, a young man named Foon is trying without success to cut it as an actor. Foon knows some kung fu, and that brings him up against a Chinese street gang trying to extort the theater for protection money. Meanwhile, another kung fu master named Yim has fallen on hard times, reduced to doing kung fu in the street for money; he wants a confrotation with Wong to restore his status as a legendary fighter.

In there somewhere, a relative of Wong's (named Aunt 13 in the subtitles) has returned from the West dressed in Western clothes and practicing Western ways, and Wong has to protect her. Eventually, Foon and Yim both get mixed up with the street gang, which also enlists the help of the Americans to get revenge on Wong by kidnapping Aunt 13 and sending her to America as a prostitute. At the end of the movie, Wong must kick some serious butt, particularly Yim's, to rescue Aunt 13. But Wong also has to deal with the local authorities, who are unhappy with him because he runs an illegal local militia.

Whew. These kung fu movies ought to come with pamphlets to help us keep the subplots straight. Can I get some Cliff's Notes over here?

Religion plays a larger part in this film than in any other kung fu movie I've seen to date. A Jesuit priest has a large role in the film's first half. He first appears with a group of fellow missionaries and neophytes, walking down a street and singing, "Hallelujah, hallelujah" (amusingly, that's the only word of their song) and trying to out-sing some Chinese playing traditional instruments. Later, after Wong sees a Chinese man trying to hoodwink his countrymen into shipping off to the U.S., the same priest tries to tell Wong about Jesus. At that point in the film, Wong is understandably upset with all things Western; having caught the leader of the street gang for extorting businesses but unable to get a witness to testify against him, Wong says to the priest in frustration, "I caught a criminal today. Will Jesus be my witness?" Later, the film presents an ironic twist on this: the same priest sees members of the street gang setting Wong's kung fu school on fire, and he is brave enough to testify against them. Eventually, members of the gang shoot him for it, along with several innocent bystanders.

Langdon Gilkey, who spent World War II in a concentration camp in China, comments in Shantung Compound that the missionaries were the only Westerners in China who were not trying to exploit the Chinese. He further suggests that Western treatment of the Chinese would have been a lot worse if the missionaries were not there to mitigate it somewhat. Once Upon a Time in China makes a similar depiction; all the white people in the film are unilaterally gun-happy and evil except the Jesuit missionary, who has a generally positive role.

Some imagery in the movie will remind Christian viewers of biblical stories. In particular, when Foon and Yim agree to help the street gang, the gang offers them a large box full of silver coins. Foon, who had earlier betrayed Wong, has a crisis of conscience, picks up the silver, and hurls it at the gang, reminiscent of Judas casting the thirty coins into the temple. One of the film's several arch-villains is an American ambassador named Jackson; Wong kills him at the end by flicking a musket ball out of his fingers and into Jackson's forehead, David-and-Goliath-style. Wong's role in the movie is quasi-messianic, so the images may be intentional.

The movie asks definite questions but never gives definite answers. After he and Wong have an impressive fight involving lots of ladders in a warehouse, Yim dies from numerous gunshots (gun-happy Americans again) and says to Wong, "We can't fight guns with kung fu," and he seems to be correct. Early in the film, the suggestion is made that China must westernize or die; Aunt 13 offers Wong a Western suit, but he refuses to wear it, yet at the end of the film, he appears wearing a suit. What exactly is this movie saying about China's relationship to the West? Will Wong's defiance continue, or is that last scene a form of acquiescence?

All things considered, this movie manages plenty of thoughtfulness, nuance, comprehensibility, and good writing for a kung fu film, not to mention excellent choreography and cinematography that make the fight scenes a lot of fun to watch.

The Sci Fi Catholic's rating for Once Upon a Time in China:

Myth Level: High (legendary hero, messianic elements, wire-fu)

Quality: High (good story, good action, some humor, good cinematography)

Religion/Ethics: High (positive but not simple-minded representation of Christianity)
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