Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Once Upon a Time in China

1991, Hong Kong, directed by Tsui Hark

Like many a Western viewer, I first discovered the Chinese/Hong Kong epic genre through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although exceptionally entertaining, it isn't really representative of the genre as a whole: this 1991 entry gives a much better impression, including with regard to the specifics of Hong Kong filmmaking style (all of the dialogue, for example, has been dubbed in post-production; it's amazing to me that this was still true for high-profile films in 1991, although that changed soon after). The Westernisation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also, in retrospect, obvious in the tightly plotted action and character development, whereas I confess I was occasionally confused by the developments here, especially in the twenty minutes immediately after the opening credits (the pre-credits sequence sets up what sounds suspiciously like a major plotline quite efficiently, but the film then goes in other directions, spiced up by brilliantly choreographed set pieces). The film is a mix of historical commentary (with a nationalistic flavour: plenty of derogatory references to the colonial masters and equally rapacious American traders, and I'm sure better knowledge of Chinese history would have helped me), spectacular sword and kung fu action and, almost improbably, melancholy reflection on the changes occasioned by the modern world. Though the film as a whole is sometimes scattershot, Tsui Hark has an extraordinary gift for filming action sequences: no matter how complicated the action, it's always clear who's doing what to whom, and he makes great use of the acrobatic skills of his performers, most obviously Jet Li at the height of his powers but also, among others, the excellent Biao Yuen.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States