One of my favourite Chinese martial arts movies of all time is Once Upon A Time In China (1991), also known as Wong Fei Hung (黃飛鴻) and its sequel directed by the famous HK director and producer, Tsui Hark (徐文光). Arguebly the movie which set off a slew of martial art flicks from HK in the early 90s upon its successful box office takings, the original spins off 4 sequels, numerous non-related series and introduced then Chinese martial art champion, future superstar, Jet Li to the global audience.
Wong Fei Hung is a Chinese folkhero based in Foshan (佛山), Guangdong (廣東). Being a folkhero, the line between facts and fictions are often blurred. The movie is a highly fictionalised account of this legendary figure.
Wong Fei Hung is the son of Wong Kei Ying (黃麒英) who is one of the Ten Tigers Of Guangdong (廣東十虎 a grouping of ten top martial art masters in Southern China). Wong is a medical practitioner as well as a formidable martial artist. His martial art knowledge is rooted in the famous Hung Branch style (洪家) (one of the major five Southern Chinese branches, founded by Hung Hei Kun -洪熙官), taught to him by his father. Wong Kei Ying appears in the second sequel but is nearly defeated by Kwai Keuk Chat aka Clubfoot, who eventually became a student of Fei Hung. This is abit ridiculous, afterall Wong Kei Ying is a formidable master himself but maybe he is getting old.
Wong's most famous style is said to be the Shadowless Kick, rumoured to be so swift that one can't even see the shadow. In the first movie, this style is depicted as a basic swift kick but in subsequent sequels, it became a chain of kicks, kicking the opponent many times before landing. Now that is abit far fetch. Another is the Fist Of Ten Forms, a combination of punches incorporating the basic movements of the Hung Branch style. This is briefly mentioned in the first movie. His favourite weapon is said to be the wooden pole as well as the southern tiger fork, although the later is not depicted.
Wong is also rumoured to be an avid lion dancer. In the second but poorer sequel, Wong participated in a special "King Lion" lion dance competition organised by Empress Dowager which eventually turned into a massive battleground between different opponents. As a medical practitioner, he owned Po Chi Lam (寶芝林) clinic which he uses as both his home and occasional practise ground for his students. He often involve himself in revolutionary ideas and this landed him in troubles which gave him an opportunity to showcase his fighting skills, in the movies at least. The stories took place the end of the increasingly turbulent period of the 19th Century Southern China as the nation is increasingly tearing itself apart and as well as the influx of Western forces. Tsui Hark inserted couple of historical figures and associations liberally, like Liu Yongfu (劉永福), the general of the Black Flag Army, the White Lotus Society (白蓮教), Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Lu Hao-tung (陸皓東), both revolutionary figures.
Prior to this movie, the most profilic depiction of Wong Fei Hung is a series of movies starred by the late Kwan Tak Heng (關德興), who acted as the titular role for at least a staggering 77 movies, between 40s to 70s. Actor Shek Kin (石堅) who, after playing so many antagonistic roles against Kwan Tak Heng, became synonymous with villainous roles. As bad as Shek Kin as the saying goes.
Without doubt, Once Upon A Time In China and its sequels contained a strong nationalistic message and deal with Western imperialism throughout. Wong is said to protect the Chinese pride fiercely.
The best aspect of the movies are the fighting sequence. Smooth and breathtaking, it is something which was not seen before. Of course there are bloopers. An obvious one is a sequence where Wong did a somersault and one can clearly see the wig hang out halfway.
There are two memorable antagonists whom Wong faced. In the first movie, there is Yim Chan Tung (Yee Kuan Yan), a down and out martial art master who practises the Iron Body Stance whereby swords and spears could not penetrate his body, as well as being able withstand powerful counterpunches. He is obsessed with challenging Wong and claim his place as the number one martial art master in Foshan but alas, Wong went one up on him and delivered couple of high powered kicks and punches to his face and head instead during the final fight, causing him to suffer from severe head trauma. Eventually he is killed in a hail of bullets.
The second movie featured the now famous Donnie Yen as Lap Lan Yin Shu, a general of the Qing government who is a master of the Four Gates Pole Stance and the infamous Cloth Staff style. His showdown with Wong is simply breathtaking for its time, both using long weapons to try to overcome each other. Its no wonder as the action director is non other than Yuen Woo Ping. In the end, Wong managed to slice through the Cloth Staff using a splinter from his broken wooden pole and slashed Lap Lan's neck, effectively killing him.
Wong has numerous students under him at one time or another but the most profilic and often depicted in movies are Leong Foon, Lam Sai Wing aka Porky, Leng Wan Kai, Ngar Chat Sou aka Bucktooth and Kwai Keuk Chat aka Clubfoot. With the exception of Lam, whether the rest really exist is unknown. Each of the above students are depicted in the movies as colourful characters. Kung fu actor Yuen Biao, a contemporary of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, starred as the first movie Leong Foon, thereafter, now retired actor Benny Mok took over the subsequent roles. Both added a different dimension to the character.
Wong is said to have married four times and have ten kids but in fiction he has only one true love, his Thirteenth Aunt (十三姨)(the former beauty queen, Rosamund Kwan). Technically, she is only his aunt due to her father is a sworn brother of Wong's grandfather.
Eventually, the too numerous sequels and inferior spinoffs led a to saturation point and eventually, all Wong Fei Hung related movies disappeared all together from the cinema by end of 90s.