Once Upon a Time in China

January 28, 2012 7 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

In late 19th century China, it seems the influence of the Western realm is starting to penetrate the culture, which some view as a serious threat. In addition to the more subtle influences on the Chinese culture, the military forces from several countries have been invading the lands, which poses even more imposing problem. But the men who stand as warriors in this country use noble weapons, such as swords and martial arts, while the invaders carry heavy guns and other modern tools. In the midst of all this is Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), who is displeased at how his country is being torn apart and plundered like this. Wong must band together with some loyal friends to face the invading forces, both of cultural and military means, which could be a tough assignment. While he battles on that front, he also tries to look after his aunt, but she ends up kidnapped and is to be sold as a prostitute. As time passes, it seems as though Wong must battle not only these foreign forces, but also his own countrymen.

Once Upon A Time In China has been released on DVD before, so why should you purchase this new Columbia/Tristar edition, right? I will cover the audio and video issues in those sections, but I want to make my recommendation clear first, because this is the version of this movie to own. The anamorphic video and original mono track sealed it for me, as I think will be the case with some of you as well. When you think of Jet Li, you might think of hard driven action scenes and such, but this film delivers much more than that. This is an action film at times of course, but there’s also a well developed storyline and complex characters, which we don’t see often in this genre. If you wonder where movies like The Matrix and Romeo Must Die took some of their inspirations, look no further than this film, which is superior to both of those mentioned. The action sequences are jaw dropping at times and Li is in fine form as always, but you will also remember the story and the characters within in. I give this film a very high recommendation and with this new disc, I think a rental or purchase is more than justified.

As I mentioned above, martial arts master Jet Li is in top form here and he works some of his finest magic in this motion picture. We’ve all seen how amazing Li is with his hands and feet of course, but here we watch him use a varied arsenal of weapons, from ladders to umbrellas. I love to watch Li work with props and when it comes to the ladder sequence, I think it is one of the most spectacular scenes of his career. If you’re a fan of Jet Li, then this film deserves a place in your collection, as he lights up the screen here. Other films with Jet Li include Hitman, My Father Is A Hero (The Enforcer), Fist of Legend, Fong Sai-Yuk, Romeo Must Die, and his American debut, Lethal Weapon 4. This movie was directed and cowritten by Tsui Hark, who knows how to deliver a potent action film. Hark combines some excellent action sequences with a more than solid storyline, which few action helmers can claim. Hark also directed films such as Twin Dragons, A Better Tomorrow III, Peking Opera Blues, and Once Upon A Time In China II.

Video: How does it look?

Once Upon A Time In China is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. As is the case with most Asian films, the source print here was not well cared for and as such, there’s a lot of grain and debris present. But this print is cleaner than most versions I’ve seen and thanks to the new anamorphic enhancement, is a nice improvement over previous editions. The image looks pretty good in the end, as the colors aren’t too faded and the contrast seems strong, though too bright at times. I wish the print were sharper and cleaner, but this is still a good transfer for this film.

Audio: How does it sound?

This disc offers mono tracks in Cantonese and Mandarin, which offer solid presentations of the material’s audio. Another DVD for this film features 5.1 surround tracks, but they seem very shrill and hollow, whereas the mono versions seem natural and allow the audio to sound cleaner. I know it sounds hard to believe, but in this case, the mono has a large advantage over the full on surround tracks. The vocals here sound crisp and clean, while the music comes off well too, though not as immersive as it could be. The sound effects are well replicated also, but again, this is mono, so don’t expect a floor shaking event. This disc also includes an English dubbed version of the film, plus subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: What are the extras?

In addition to the bonus English language edition of the film, this disc also includes some talent files and an audio commentary track from Ric Myers. According to the case, Myers is a Hong Kong film expert, but he doesn’t offer much in terms of insight, more like an extended biography of Jet Li with some history tossed in on HK cinema.

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