Period kung-fu films were pretty much out of the loop for more than a decade in Hong Kong cinema. Director Tsui Hark, at the time best known for directing such films as Dangerous Encounters of the Dangerous Kind and Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, decided to make a period kung-fu film with folklore hero Wong Fei Hung as the lead character. Jet Li plays the legendary hero who wasn’t a big name in Hong Kong cinema as of yet and while this film didn’t make him a household name, it did put him on the map.
The Western influence is growing stronger and stronger every day and many of the Chinese locals don’t like it. Wong Fei Hung is approached by the General of the Black Flag Army to create and train a group of people to defend their town. Butcher Porky Wing and American educated Chinese man Bucktooth So are among those recruited. Wong meets Siu-Kwan, who he addresses respectfully as 13th Aunt and develop feelings for each other. While they are not blood related, going into a relationship regardless would be considered too taboo so they don’t go into a further relationship which creates some tension between the two. A man named Leung Foon, played by Yuen Biao, is also in town and is fired from his opera team. He later befriends a martial arts master named “Iron Vest” Yim who wants to build his own martial arts school but knows he has to go through Wong first.
The main plot that gets the action going is through the Shaho Gang, who sets fire to Wong’s clinic then later develops a bond with the Westerners who promise to get them women in exchange for protection. 13th Aunt is later kidnapped by the Shaho Gang so Wong and his men go to find her and rescue her which ends in a one on one showdown between Wong and Yim. This is one of the most popular films in Jet Li’s catalogue and it’s no surprise that it is. This film is crafted very well and the action choreography is splendid. Jet Li delivers an amazing performance and he holds a commanding presence onscreen. Rosamund Kwan is also a welcome addition as 13 th Aunt. She pulls all the right emotions here. For me, the best thing about this film is actually Yuen Biao. He shows his comedic timing as well as his brilliant acting. Of course with Yuen Biao, he also shows his mind-blowing acrobatic skills and even though he is over shadowed by Jet Li, he really is the unsung hero of the film. While this would be Yuen Biao’s only time in the Once Upon A Time In China series, he makes the best of his opportunity.
Jet Li plays Wong Fei Hung to the best of his ability. Jet Li is absolutely perfect in the role. One scene in particular, when Wong is remembering the Westerners shooting at innocent Chinese, his face shows his anger but also sadness at the same time. It’s a remarkable piece of acting. The music in this film sent chills down my spine. Whenever that Wong Fei Hung theme comes on, chills will go down your spine too. It’s pretty much inevitable. The political themes in this film can get pretty tiresome because it feels like the filmmakers are trying their best to tell you how to think and while it doesn’t detract you from the greatness of this film, it can get in the way. I highly recommend this film, not only to see Jet Li at one of his very best but to see how the period martial arts film got started up again. If you are a fan of martial arts films, this is a necessity.