I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

tn_ouatisAs much as beautiful action sequences are one of the great joys of life, the story really is the important part, it turns out. It can be formulaic and unoriginal – no problem, that can even be a plus sometimes – but it has to be a good engine for the fights and chases, giving us characters with motivations and making us want to see something happen, even something as simple as “I hope he kills that motherfucker” (or “I can’t wait ’til he fights that little guy!” as the guy next to me at THE RAID said). Most of the better Asian martial arts movies are especially story-driven I think, because of their themes of brotherhood, honor, tradition vs. innovation, etc.

So this is unusual but here’s one I’m recommending mostly just for the action. It’s the reverse of so many modern American action movies where I liked it despite the action being weak. I liked it even though I didn’t care much about what was happening until like halfway through.

I mean, there are elements I love here. The hero Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng, DRAGON SQUAD) has a right fist so powerful his mom made him wear her jade bracelet to remind him not to use it. Donnie Yen’s wife tied a string around his wrist for the same reason in KUNG FU KILLER, but this is a more severe punishment because it’s pretty girly looking. His fist is often shot to look giant, and then we see that gaudy-looking bracelet with a metal charm on it that spins and hums with movement. So every time we see it we remember his vow of punchlessness.

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See, my eye goes right past the two young guys to Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo Ping sitting there in chairs. This poster knows how to speak to me.

He’s part of a troupe of street acrobats who comes to Shanghai and sees all kinds of extravagance goin on, but he can’t take part because he doesn’t want to join any of the Triad gangs that are fighting over the territory. To me it seemed kinda meandering and hard to follow until a great scene about halfway through when he challenges the cocky, handsome gang leader Long Qi (Andy On, TRUE LEGEND, BLACKHAT), who has recently conquered the city. Long Qi has been known to accept challenges, offering to give up a truckload of opium if a fighter can last with him until his cigarette burns out. Ma does last long enough and instead of taking his prize he immediately sets the whole shipment on fire, which Long thinks is hilarious. Not just because it’s ballsy, but because he says it’s a poor way to destroy opium.

In fact he really likes Ma, they become Fight Brothers and hang out together and he gives Ma a job at his fancy night club called Paradise. Ma refuses to become a Triad but defends his brother’s honor when friends bad mouth him. I thought it was gonna be about luring the naive country boy in and corrupting him or screwing him over if he won’t join up or something like that. Instead it really is about that great theme of friendship between opposites. That might be predictable to those critical of modern Hong Kong cinema’s heavy government influence, because it becomes yet another story about resisting the influence of Japan and the West. Long actually straight up says that’s his goal and then in case you need some underlining it’s replayed in a sappy flashback montage of friendship highlights.

The bad guys are Japanese gangsters trying to control the drug trade there. The final duel takes place among terra cotta soldiers and ornate dragon-themed columns that keep getting chipped up by an errant Japanese sword, threatening the great Chinese legacy. There’s even a line about “the Chinese are no longer the sick men of East Asia,” which is why these modern propaganda movies don’t seem like a new problem to me: this has so much in common with FIST OF FURY I had to consider whether it was supposed to be a loose remake or not.

One reason I saw this: Sammo Hung, but he’s got a pretty small part. The real reason to see it is action director Yuen Woo-Ping. I don’t know if he wants to work in the U.S. anymore, but it’s weird that none of the super hero movies have hired him (other than when Raimi almost used him on the original SPIDER-MAN when he thought the animation wasn’t working). He continues to innovate ways to visualize extraordinary skill and power. There are many highlights here but I’ll go with the two most over-the-top moments:

1. He punches a guy’s punch, sending a lump that moves up the guy’s arm like a wave. I’m not clear if it’s his bone breaking or just a ball of energy shooting through his flesh, but it’s amazing.

2. He punches a guy’s kick. It’s a nice slow motion side shot and the guy does a flying kick but he punches his foot in mid-air and sends him ricocheting like a foul ball. Absolutely beautiful.

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A word of warning though: That’s the actual coloring of the movie on that still. For some reason cinematographer Jimmy Wong, or whoever was in charge of the coloring, drained so much out that I kept trying to figure out if it was actually in black and white or not. (The shots on the box are all colorized.) It’s not like it looks terrible, I kinda like it, but it feels like kind of a cop out. They shoulda gone for full-on, stark black and white, in my opinion.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 13th, 2015 at 10:03 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai”

  1. This did not sound good at all before and after the part where you said it was a Yoon Woo-Ping choreographical production. But that one part convinced me to see it anyway.

  2. Sounds rad! I skipped most of the review so I can watch it first (I’ll be back) — looks like it’s on Amazon Instant for $4. When Vern recommends a movie based on its action, you know it’s time to drop everything and find that film!

  3. Yeah I’ll peep it for the action choreography alone. Shame about Sammo just being a glorified cameo though.

  4. This isn’t a martial arts classic, but it is a fun film that fans of the genre will enjoy. It has good action that is well presented and some little touches of silliness or over the top type moments you would expect from a Wong Jing production.

    It was streaming in Netflix for those interested.

  5. Wong Jing. That is a name that sends chills down my spine whenever I hear it. Whenever that name pops up in the opening credits you need to steel yourself for whats about to come.

  6. Wong Jing has made some good films in the past, such as his early films with Chow Sing Chi or the God of Gamblers films. The real problem with him is how much he will flog a dead horse, with endless sequels to his hits, each poorer than the last. There are at least 10 God of Gambler spin offs/rip offs I can think off. Some of them are actually enjoyable, but for christ sake come up with something new for a change.

  7. Wong Jing has made hundreds of films as a writer, director and producer. For ever good film he has been involved with (some of Jet Li and Stephen Chow’s best films are Wong Jing joints) he probably has two stinkers to accompany it. He is a shameless and often crass provocateur, that tends to pander to the lowest common denominator. However, that is also what I like about Jing’s work. His filmography is full of cheap cash ins and crude rip offs, but there is an undeniable eagerness to entertain in most of his work that I truly enjoy. If you look at films like THE SEVENTH CURSE, NAKED KILLER, or MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG they are all bursting at the seems with action, gags, and crazy ideas that don’t always fit together but the sheer volume and earnestness creates an exploitation cinema experience like none other.

  8. Even ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI which is pretty straight forward and less crass then some of Jing’s other films features a scene where friends Long Qi and Ma Yongzhen have an innuendo laced conversation about their favorite type of hotdogs that would make Tobias Funke blush.

  9. But his involvement and contribution to the actioners has always been the “comedy”. I can´t thank him for that. But, the films Charles listed that he´s been involved with are so memorable that I probably should stop giving the guy a hard time. They are crazy, entertaining films. But I am scared to revisit CITY HUNTER

  10. A lot of the films mentioned such as Naked Killer and the Seventh Curse, Wong Jing only worked as a producer on. I remember when they were released in the UK a lot of the films that he produced were advertised as Wong Jing films. Maybe this was because of name recognition, but I always thought it was a bit unfair that Jing always got the credit for them.

  11. Shoot, I agree about Jing and his affection for comedy.

    Daron, you are correct Jing didn’t direct the three films I mentioned by name, but he is at least credited as a writer on all of them and he deserves the credit for their success or failure. I would argue that if you were to view Jing’s entire body of work as a writer, director, and producer through the lens of the auteur theory you would see that no matter what role Wong is credited with on the film’s production his contribution and influence on the project is undeniable. Wong Jing is an exploitation auteur, and his voice (a love of penis jokes, silly gags, Meta humor, over the top action, and WTF moments) is consistent throughout his body of work. There is also an unmistakable commercial crassness to his films. They are crowd pleasers by design that are often overstuffed with crazy action, ideas, and jokes that are presented at a relentless rate with jarring shifts in tone. I admit that formula can be exhausting, crude and off putting when it doesn’t hit the mark, but when it does it there is no better bang for your buck when it comes to pure genre entertainment then Wong Jing.

    In addition I would also point out that the role of a producer in HK cinema is very different than what we think of here in the states, and the producer often has more control of the creative process than the director. For example Johnnie To has a unique relationship with his producing partner Wai Ka-Fai. Wai has even received co directing credit on some of To’s films. To has also ghost directed a number of films for Milkyway Image while acting as the producer. John Woo and Tsui Hark had a falling out over Hark as the producer taking away creative control of A BETTER TOMORROW II from Woo.

  12. *Correction: “Daron, you are correct Jing didn’t direct ALL three OF the films I mentioned by name.” He did direct MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG, but my typo made it sound like he didn’t direct any of them.

  13. Charles – I didn’t mention Mercenaries from Hong Kong in my comment because out of the films that you mentioned, that is one that he directed, which is actually a terrific Hong Kong actioner.

    Jing’s films that he is involved in definately have a certain feel to them, and like you say some of them are excellent. I think that he just spreads himself really thin sometimes, and with that some of his films feel rushed. I remember certain people saying that on some films Jing was too busy writing his next film, and left a lot of the film to his assistant director or 2nd unti team. I remember Jackie Chan complaining about this on City Hunter, and that he himself directed a large portion of the film. Both Richard Norton and Gary Daniels made similar comments while working on the film.

    In regards to Johnnie To it is obvious that he has taken over certain productions. The three films Patrick Yau directed for Milkyway apparently were ghost directed by To, as his style is written all over them especially “Where a Good Man Goes” and “The Longest Nite”, both which i must add are excellent.

    Also I think Woo may be having another falling out with Hark, as something similar has happened again with Woo’s new film “The Crossing part 2”, with Hark being brought on by the producers to re-edit the movie.

  14. I think I have to mention when it comes to Wong Jing films, I do like LAST BLOOD a.k.a HARDBOILED 2. That´s one film that seems forgotten.

  15. Shoot, I haven’t seen it yet but I will have to check it out.

  16. The Last Blood is great fun. Totally crazy action film, that does have everything you would expect from a Wong Jing Film. Another eralier Wong Jing film that is in the same mould as The Last Blood is Crocodile Hunter. Has some really silly comedy then unexpectedly violent action scenes.

  17. I will have to check that one out as well. Thanks Daron.

  18. Hmm. Vern, it seems like the use of color was pretty deliberate, to highlight scenes of emotion. All the fighting is done in strict black and white, whereas the color pops up in scenes of characters falling in love, or doing / talking about things that aren’t related to fighting.

    Except at the end, the culture of China receives a shade of color in the final sword / fist fight.

    Seemed kinda interesting to me. I agree that the story was a little hrm, but I felt myself getting pretty invested in the characters, and when Long Qi bought it I was legitimately upset.

    This movie seems like a story that could’ve benefited from a longer running time, even as a series, to really let those character relationships develop.

    Still, I liked it.

  19. I’d like to mention something very important about this movie, it taught me that punching cows is meaningless.

    Conor Mahood on Twitter

    “You know what? This dude is right.”

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