Once Upon A Time In China
Disadvantages like Charlie's Angels aside, the steadily growing influence of Hong Kong cinema in America has been beneficial: For starters, those films are now far more widely available. Jet Li, a mainland-China-born actor and rising star in America, has appeared in Hong Kong films for more than 20 years, breaking through as a leading man in 1991 with the handsome, much-sequelized, Tsui Hark-directed period actioner Once Upon A Time In China. Li stars as 19th-century folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a doctor and martial artist who heads a school of devoted disciples. China pits him against the encroaching forces of colonialism as he becomes aware of various intrigues between British and American foreigners and the domestic criminal element. Wong may be better known to American audiences as the character played by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master series, but the differences between Chan's interpretation and Li's illustrates the differences between Hong Kong's second most popular action star and its first: Chan's charm and humor is nearly matched by Li's gravity. Here, that quality helps Li coast past some of the film's potholes. A gifted if erratic director, Tsui attempts to bring an almost David Lean-like sensibility to China, resulting in some remarkably effective widescreen cinematography, period production design, a concern for historical moments that forever change the course of a nation, a plot that becomes difficult to follow almost from the opening scene, sluggish pacing, and breakneck changes in tone. But as a director of balletic action scenes, Tsui has few equals. His gift allows Li to demonstrate his talents with ferocity and grace alongside gifted co-stars, particularly during a climactic battle that rivals any fight scene put to screen in Hong Kong or anywhere else.