Movie News & Reviews

Tradition meets technology in kung fu epic

As a man of extreme national influence, I like to take a look at the tough issues.

This week in Martial Arts Month, we tackle the following question: which is cooler, gun violence or fist violence? The Matrix trots out both, but it's either one or the other.

As proof, look no further than the dying words of one of the biggest studs in 1991's Once Upon a Time in China: "We can't fight guns with kung fu."

Western interests have swept aside the laws of 19th century China, leaving it ripe for criminals like the Chaho Gang to run wild. Martial arts master Jet Li has been left in charge of his local militia, which soon becomes the only force protecting the city.

It's easy to forget this now that Jet Li's spent years rocking Hollywood action movies so heavy on effects-based trickery they're even capable of making people like Nicolas Cage look good, but Li has skills.

Bill-paying skillz. Skills so deadly that when they walk down a dark alley all the other skills go running away to reconsider their wicked lives. Once Upon a Time in China makes use of wire-fu and other Hong Kong techniques to pull off its epic and inventive choreography, but it's the kung fu itself that's always given center stage.

This is right in line with the tradionalism that underlines the whole movie, where a sense of impending loss stands on the horizon like all those foreign warships parked in the city's bay. On the other hand, who cares about the erosion of cultural values when you're watching some guy steal a fat man's ham hock to fight off hordes of mobsters?

Kung fu heroes often improvise weapons and attacks like this, which probably has something to do with the fact one of the keys to martial arts is bypassing rational thought in favor of immediate reaction. I myself am so tapped into my instinctive reactions these days that whenever my instructor throws a punch at me I naturally run away screaming.

Director Hark Tsui integrates this improvisational heritage into each of his fights. His environments are as much a participant in the battle as the guys throwing the kicks, culminating in a wondrous ladder-fight that rates a "Donkey Piloting a Battleship" on the Insane-O-Scale.

Good as its action scenes are, it has the well-defined characters and story to match. Shot through with uncertainty and corruption and the will to stand fast against them both, Once Upon a Time in China shows kung fu movies can be as powerful emotionally as they are physically.