90s Far East Bracket: Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon A Time In China, 1991)


The first film in my third match-up in the first round of the 90s Far East Bracket!

Written By: Yiu Ming Leung, Pik-yin Tang, Hark Tsui & Gai Chi Yuen
Directed By: Hark Tsui

I have no problem with action movies that can sustain a story or pointless action movies that realize their story is fluff. What always gets me are action movies that try to present a heavy handed and ludicrous story and act like it matters. One of the reasons I have found very few Asian martial arts epics that I like is for this very reason. The action is often very good, but it’s always pinned down by a badly done story that I could care less about but the movie is bound and determined to act like its story matters. Wong Fei Hung falls into this category, but coming from the same man who directed the thoroughly mediocre Chat Gim I shouldn’t be that surprised.

The action scenes, specifically the fighting, in Wong Fei Hung is stellar for the most part. It is choreographed superbly and you know when you are watching the fights that you are watching the work of people who know how to organize and act out fantastic fights. That being said, the fights are meaningless. Some action sequences serve no purpose in any way or are tied to the ridiculous story so much that I wanted them to end the moment they started, like the dragon dance at the opening. The action scenes end up feeling meaningless because there is never a palpable sense of danger, I never though Jet Li was in any danger, nor did I feel that his comrades were in danger. From the get go you know what is going to happen and while some movies can get around this fact with good craftsmanship, Wong Fei Hung isn’t able to and even the well made fight scenes don’t matter.

Possibly the worst aspect of Wong Fei Hung was its inability to maintain a frame of reference for the audience to work off of. The movies floats from scene to scene and moment to moment with no cohesion or sense that scene A somehow relates to scene D. This was clearly a stylistic choice and maybe that choice worked for some people, but I couldn’t stand it. This even bleeds into the impact scenes can have on you. Some shots are constructed beautifully, they are a joy to look at. Foon witnessing the man breaking two spears in the rain is a pure artistic shot, but the viewer has little idea what is going on or why what we are seeing should matter so the scene doesn’t carry an ounce of impact or resonance with it.

As I initially stated, Wong Fei Hung is the type of action film I don’t like, and it never shakes that realm. It remains too large for its own good with a story that is laughable yet constantly being shoved down the viewers throat. In the end every moment of the film feels like a prop for more action that I don’t care about because I haven’t been given any reason to care. As far as Chinese epics go, Wong Fei Hung is one that you can easily skip.




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