The early 1990’s were a strange time for Hong Kong cinema. They were a time of prosperity and a time of panic, a period of intense artistic creativity and of disappointing commercial performances, half a decade of genres failing and running out of steam only to rise back up, completely reinvented, for a measly two or three years. Just as a second wave of young directors emerged amidst the reinvigorated Hong Kong film industry of the period, the men (John Woo, Kirk Wong, Chow Yun-Fat) who had made the success of the first one sought their fame and prosperity in the United States. The Handover of ’97 was looming large ; the events in Tian’anmen Square in the spring of ’89 loomed larger. Film directors feared they would lose their artistic freedom, and as the triads and rampant piracy began to infect the film industry from within, the mavericks of the new wave of ’79 all left the british ex-colony. All but Tsui Hark. Tsui Hark’s departure to the United States was much later, in 1997, and even then it was only for one film, Double Team, as he convinced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his Hollywood execs to take the production of Knock Off to Hong Kong ; where he has remained since.

And why not? Ever since founding his film company, the Film Workshop, in 1984, Tsui Hark had been the leader of the Hong Kong film industry. A Better Tomorrow, the Workshop’s third production, became the highest-grossing Hong Kong film in history when it hit the big screen in ’86, only to be topped a year later by A Chinese Ghost Story, another Film Workshop production. Between ’84 and ’95, it was as though Tsui Hark could do no wrong, singlehandedly setting and re-setting the standards and the direction of the industry with every major release, every one so different from one another one might wonder if they were indeed made by the same man. Ever since his first feature, The Butterfly Murders in ’79, Hark sought to reactualize Hong Kong cinema and its major genres, from chinese chivalry films (Swordsman, The Blade) to fantasy dramas (Green Snake), often bringing those genres to new technical highs. Yet it was not until 1991, a full seven years after the establishment of his studio, that he would finally tackle the genre Hong Kong is most famous for, the kung fu pian, with Once Upon a Time in China.

It is difficult to think of Hong Kong cinema without thinking of kung fu ; impossible even. Kung fu is what made Hong Kong movies popular in the West to begin with, or at least Bruce Lee did, as early as the seventies. Kung fu is a great part of what kept Hong Kong films popular in the West through the eighties and nineties, with Jackie Chan becoming an international star thanks to his martial and athletic prowess. And sure enough, kung fu films are as old as Hong Kong cinema itself. The genre goes back to the very roots of cantonese cinema, and from there kung fu grew to influence every aspect of Hong Kong action cinema. Yet it was not always so. Kung fu films, or kung fu pian in Hong Kong, have a complex history, punctuated by epic highs and dramatic lows. It all begins in the 1940s in Hong Kong. At the time, depictions of chinese chivalry and martial arts were deemed subversive in mainland China and had therefore been banned by the Kuomintang, but that never stopped Hong Kong filmmakers, who even then took advantage of the colony’s political immunity. Both the second sino-japanese war and the later years of the Chinese Civil War prompted many mainlanders to seek refuge in Hong Kong. By the late forties, the Shanghai film industry, which had once been dubbed the chinese Hollywood, had essentially moved to Hong Kong, kickstarting an industry that had thus far been slow to develop. Throughout the fifties, the Hong Kong film industry underwent a drastic transformation, with mandarin companies like Shaw Brothers and Motion Picture & General Investment turning the british colony into the crown jewel of southeast asian cinema. As mandarin cinema began to dominate the industry, traditional mainland chinese film genres like the wen yi pian (‘civil drama’) and the huangmei diao (opera films) soon took over the market. It would not be until the early seventies that cantonese cinema would develop enough to rival mandarin films, which had better funding and a plethora of seasoned, experienced directors.

Wong Fei Hung.

But in 1949, Wu Pang directed True Story of Wong Fei Hung, quite possibly the first kung fu film of all time. Starring Kwan Tak Hing, one of the foremost cantonese actors of his time, it told the story of southern chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hun, the son of one of the famed Ten Tigers of Canton, and himself a reputed martial artist and master physician. He established his clinic, Po Chi Lam, in his hometown of Foshan and became a pillar of the communiy. The legend goes that he became the medical officer and martial arts instructor of the Black Flag Army, who fought the french in Vietnam, and that he fought alongside them against the japanese during their 1895 invasion of Taiwan. Arguably, however, his legend did not truly start until the release of True Story of Wong Fei Hung in 1949, twenty four years after Master Wong passed away. The film was an immense success, which led to Kwan Tak Hing returning to the role for a further seventy or so installments. Between 1949 and 1969, Wong Fei Hung was undoubtedly the most popular character in all of cantonese cinema, his run only ending when Kwan Tak Hing chose to go into semi-retirement. Master Wong swiftly became a symbol for traditional chinese values ; respect of traditions and of the elders, discipline, righteousness… Often travelling in the company of his students, the most famous one being the butcher Lin Shi Rong, Master Wong’s adventures generally have him put his martial skills to the service of justice and rightfulness. If he is not fighting bandits, he is fighting evil rival schools of kung fu, although fighting might be the wrong word. The earliest Wong films do not even feature any physical confrontations ; duels are limited to two opponents showing off their skills without there being any actual physical contact. Much like Zatoichi or Tange Sazen in Japan, Wong Fei Hung also became a symbol of the genre that featured him most prominently, long before the genre was even truly defined.

When the seventies finally came along, Golden Harvest spearheaded a return to form for cantonese cinema by producing Bruce Lee’s Big Boss and Fist of Fury. A strong rivalry began between Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, which swiftly became the most important cantonese film studio in the colony. Bruce Lee’s death was a devastating blow to the cantonese film industry, but in a mere four films Bruce Lee had set the course for Hong Kong cinema, and by the mid-seventies the kung fu genre had entered its first true golden age. With Kwan Tak Hing’s retirement, however, Master Wong appeared only sporadically in Hong Kong cinemas, and even then only in fairly mediocre films such as The Skyhawk. As kung fu films picked up steam, Shaw Brothers saw dollar signs, and jumped feet first into the genre, producing dozens of kung fu flicks every year as early as 1972. The Master of Kung Fu, Shaw’s first attempt at a mandarin twist on Master Wong’s legend, went unnoticed between the staggering successes that were Five Fingers of Death and Blood Brothers. Yet the cantonese side of the industry seemed reluctant to replace Kwan Tak Hing, and so it fell to Shaw Brothers choregrapher and filmmaker Liu Chia Liang to subvert the character for the very first time. Master Wong’s film incarnation had grown old with Kwan Tak Hing, but in Challenge of the Masters, Liu Chia Liang cast his brother Gordon Liu as a young, inept, clueless Wong Fei Hung who has to learn everything about kung fu in order to stand up to the values and principles the legend binds him to embody.

The success of Challenge of the Masters led to the rise of a new subgenre within the kung fu film landscape, the Kung Fu Comedy. Characterized by a delicate balance between gaudy humour and elaborately choregraphed fighting sequences, Kung Fu Comedies emphasized traditional values of kung fu : discipline, surpassing one’s limits, restraint of oneself, and wisdom. More importantly, Kung Fu Comedies would mark the next step in Master Wong’s film journey, as in 1978 Jackie Chan would put on the mantle of the character for Yuen Woo Ping’s Drunken Master. Heavily inspired by Liu Chia Liang’s film, Drunken Master features a young, immature, dishonest, lecherous, all around mean Wong Fei Hung. After pushing his father Wong Kei Ying to anger in a long, uncomfortable sequence which sees Fei Hung sexually harass his cousin, he is sent to train under his uncle, the Beggar So (himself a famous folk hero). What follows is an hour of ludicrously sadistic training sequences, punctuated by sequences of sheer bad taste and mean-spirited cantonese humor. Drunken Master was wildly successful, propelling Jackie Chan to stardom pretty much instantly, and prompting Yuen Woo Ping and Golden Harvest to produce two other Wong films, Magnificent Butcher and Dreadnought, both of them starring Kwan Tak Hing. Though the focus is very much on Wong’s students, they would prove to be Hing’s goodbye to the character, as he would never return to the role. By the time Dreadnought hit the screens in ’81, however, Kung Fu Comedies were fading in popularity, in no small part because of the emergence of the Hong Kong New Wave in ’79, which would eventually see crime films and police dramas emerge as the dominating genre in the industry. Kung fu films as a whole were on the way out, not so much because kung fu was becoming less popular, but because the genre was essentially being absorbed into crime and police dramas, with Jackie Chan’s Project A and Police Story films leading the charge. The unprecedented success of A Better Tomorrow in 1986 cemented that state of affairs, and the kung fu genre hit an all-time low, with Liu Chia Liang’s Martial Arts of Shaolin being the only major kung fu release that year.

Kwan Tak Hing, the original Wong Fei Hung.

By the time Once Upon a Time of China hit movie screens in 1991, the kung fu genre was for all intents and purposes dead. The industry and public had moved on. Besides crime films and action flicks, a new brand of urban dramas was rising in Hong Kong following the release of Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild. Cantonese pop stars like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui utterly dominated cinemas as former ‘martial stars’ like Ti Lung and David Chiang struggled to find their place in the changing scene. Yet kung fu remained the mortar and stone of Hong Kong action cinema, with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s urban comedy action flicks consistently topping the local box-office. And then there was Tsui Hark, whose Swordsman films were on the brink of bringing back the chinese chivalry genre to its former glory after years of dormancy. Ever obsessed with the idea that chinese culture needed reactualizing, Tsui Hark no doubt must have sat thinking that he had a responsibility to do just that for the kung fu pian, particularly after he had such a heavy hand in killing off the genre entirely. And what better way to bring the genre back than by returning to its very roots, to the character that had started it all?

By 1991, there was no better candidate to play Master Wong than Jet Li. By the time he was nineteen, he was already a national champion of wu shu. By 1986, he had made his film bones in Martial Arts of Shaolin under the direction of Liu Chia Liang. Hark had worked with him on The Master and knew what the man could do. Once Upon a Time in China was a huge success upon its release in August 1991, grossing over 29 million HK dollars, and paving the way for five sequels and a plethora of cheap imitators (Claws of Steel being the most noteworthy). In many ways, Once Upon a Time in China was a return to the roots of the character, to the Kwan Tak-Hing era of Wong films. Jet Li’s Wong was not a disrespectful, nasty teenager like Chan’s was, or a clueless screw up like Gordon Liu’s. Though young, his incarnation of the character was respectacle in every way a chinese martial arts master should be, prudent, wise, cautious, and respectful of chinese traditions to a fault. Yet the differences with Kwan Tak-Hing’s portrayal appear immediately. The film opens with Master Wong attending the Black Flag Army’s departure to the south, where they are to wage war. Liu Yongfu entrusts him with a militia of his own, to maintain order in Foshan, the town in which the film is set. The story focuses essentially on Wong’s interactions with the militia and his students, whose unruliness puts him at odds both with villainous american slave traders and Qing court officials. Though Master Wong attempts to follow the law, circumstances force him into action, and he has to face off against a band of local bandits (with the ever villainous Simon Yam as their leader) and a group of evil american slave traders.

Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II.

As is usual for Tsui Hark, reactualizing the myth also means overtly politicizing it, and in that respect Once Upon a Time in China differs from every other Wong Fei Hung film ever produced. Hark’s Wong Fei Hung films deal head on with China’s interactions with foreign nations, colonization, and the need for China to unite and forge a new, modern chinese identity. Those ideas, naturally, resonated well with Hong Kong audiences of the time, who were then torn between the modern, semi-democratic lifestyle of their british governors and the traditional ideals of mainland China. This is not an idea unique to Hark’s films. In fact, it appears to prevade just about every film produced in Hong Kong between 1979 and 1997, the period which encompasses the beginning of the negociations to return Hong Kong to China and the Handover in July 1997. Hark’s approach of Wong Fei Hung is itself torn between both sides, as the character progresses from being resolutely traditional to becoming accepting of western ideas, mostly through his adorable aunt Yee (who isn’t really his aunt), who is both Wong’s romantic interest throughout the series and the impetus that prompts him to become more open-minded. Hark, like most cantonese directors of his generation, studied film abroad and brought to Hong Kong cinema a sensitivity that quickly found itself at odds with the older Shanghai-bred generation, and in Once Upon a Time in China it finds itself personified through Aunt Yee, and a number of other characters who serve as bridge between traditional chinese culture and the modernity of western technology.

In that sense, Once Upon a Time in China is perhaps the ultimate subversion of Hong Kong cinema’s most traditional character ; even more so than Drunken Master‘s nastiness and stupidity. In turn, that is most certainly why it is among the most fondly remembered, and the most popular in the West, where Wong Fei Hung’s fame is fairly limited. Of all the character’s adaptations, it is also the one that holds up the best, in no small part because the subject matter still feels relevant. After the vile americain slave traders of the first film, Hark pulls a 180, pitting Master Wong against chinese nationalist extremists and an ambiguous court official in Once Upon a Time in China II. Through it all, Wong remains a paragon of virtue, choosing to follow his noble principles in spite of the political contexts he inevitably finds himself embroiled in. The films themselves are deeply nationalistic, the underlying message generally being that the chinese must learn from the West to better rid themselves of it, and for all his finesse and keen perception Hark does lay it on pretty thick at times, with the americans of the first one being comically evil. Again, in contrast, the british of the second film get off pretty easy, as the chinese themselves are depicted as a pretty cowardly and contemptible lot, ruled by corrupt men who wave power and religion in their faces to deceive them. From film to film, from context to context, Hark depicts a constantly changing China, with Master Wong’s rightfulness and principles remaining the only unchanging component.

The depth and complexity of the situations Hark explores gives the first three Once Upon a Time in China films a density and magnitude that makes them completely unique within the genre. Once Upon a Time in China II in particular shines with its organic depiction of civil war, but through it all Hark hits a superb balance of breathtaking action, epic historical drama, and silly comedy. As was common in Film Workshop productions of the time, the tone of the films is constantly shifting, and comedy often gives way to pure tragedy in the space of a few frames. Hark never undermines the gravity of his subject matter, but also never forgets to entertain, and when the action kicks off it’s hard to take eyes off the screen. All three films lead to hair-raising climaxes of choregraphical madness. The finale of the second film has Master Wong fight a sect leader on an altar made of precariously stacked tables, and it is hard not to be amazed by the complexity and energy of Yuen Woo Ping’s choregraphy and the precision and grace of Hark’s directing and editing. The Once Upon a Time in China films arguably display some of the best and most inventive action sequences of the period, all involving elements of dazzling verticality (a long fight scene in the first scene has Master Wong fight off assaillants while jumping between several falling ladders) and sheer Hong Kong craziness. Some things simply have to be seen to be believed – like Donnie Yen poking holes in walls with a wet towel, or Jet Li shooting lead bullets with his fingers.

While the first three films are perfectly balanced, the same cannot be said about the other three, which delve further and further into sheer Hong Kong B-movie madness with each further iteration. Hark handed off directing of the fourth and sixth film to choregrapher Yuen Bun and Sammo Hung respectively, and so the films do not feel as polished or as masterful. Narrative bloat does set in from the fourth one and on as the contexts and situations begin to feel repetitive and contrived. Even still, the films are wildly entertaining, although sadly Chiu Man Cheuk had to step in to replace Jet Li for Once Upon a Time in China 4 and 5 after Li and Hark quarelled. Li returned for the sixth and final installment of Wong Fei Hung’s adventures in 1997. Since then, Master Wong has not been brought back to the movie screen ; but much the same can be said about the kung fu genre in general. Aside from a few important films, such as Ronny Yu’s Fearless or Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series, itself heavily inspired from Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China, the last twenty years have been very slow for the genre and it has struggled to find any sort of footing in the post-Handover Hong Kong film industry, which completely lacks the subversion and madness that made the glory of Hong Kong cinema in the first place. The kung fu genre will no doubt crop up again at some point, however, and when it does I would wager it will be through more Wong Fei Hung films. Until that happens, we can still enjoy Once Upon a Time in China and its sequels, which even after thirty years stand as masterpieces of martial arts cinema, and essential viewing.