Tsui Hark, Hong Kong’s Steven Spielberg, brings back the period kung fu film and tweaks it up in this tale of one of the greatest Chinese folk heroes in history. The film would also catapult Mainland China wushu champion Jet Li to action film icon.

In last 19th-Century China, businessman and military units from Europe and America have come to China in hopes to start up business. Meanwhile, the Black Flag Army hopes to train in martial arts to better advance their military. In charge of training the soldiers is the highly respected martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung. While operating from his Po Chi Lam institute, Wong’s students include “Porky” Lam Sai-Wing, young upstart Kai, and Bucktooth So.

While Wong hopes that China will stay as a respectable nation with their own beliefs, he soon learns that the Western influence will eventually have its impact in China. When he meets Aunt 13, he is shocked to discover that she has had a vast knowledge of Western influence. However, the sudden change in China’s culture becomes the least of Master Wong’s problems.

First, a local gang from Shaho has been causing trouble by demanding protection money from the local merchants. Meanwhile, Jackson, an American in China, is planning to send Chinese people back to the United States as slaves. Even more troublesome, a kung fu expert known as Iron Robe Yim has arrived in hopes to find a worthy opponent. When Shaho gang leader Hung finds himself connected to Jackson in hopes to cause trouble for Wong, the kung fu master must find a way to stop all the evils while dealing with his views on China and its culture.

The legend of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung has been depicted over the course of over 40 years before the release of this film. While Kwan Tak-Hing, Jackie Chan, and Gordon Liu have brought out various interpretations, Jet Li’s take on the famous hero is not just a kung fu master. His version brings out a more internal conflict as he must endure Western influences in China. While it is true that there are a lot of martial arts fighting in the film, Tsui Hark’s vision holds more than just being a martial arts action film.

While it may look as if in the eyes of Wong that Westerners are the villains and that China should be one, it takes the eyes of Wong’s potential love interest, Aunt 13, to start changing his views. Rosamund Kwan churns out a terrific performance as Aunt 13, the woman who opens the mind of the martial arts master. What is really interesting is the evolution of Wong’s character from opening to end.

The film pits Wong against three central villains. For much of the film, Wong is forced to take on the evil Hung. Played by fellow Mainlander Chiu Jian-Guo, Hung is the evil gang leader whose greed motivates him to commit crimes. Another villain is that of Jackson, played by British actor Jonathan Isgar of Operation Condor. Jackson is the leader of a notorious slave ring who coerces Chinese to America with the promise they will be rich. Jackson’s right hand man is Tiger, played by American martial arts expert Steve Tartalia, a veteran of Hong Kong films like Isgar.

However, no one brings a better villain of this caliber than the veteran Yen Shi-Kwan, who plays kung fu expert Iron Robe Yim. Yim seems at first very likable as he seems like a beggar who is helped by opera actor Foon, played by Yuen Biao. However, it is revealed that Yim is actually trying to test his skills against the best fighters in the area. The epic fight between Yim and Wong takes place in a room full of ladders. The collaboration of Yuen Cheung-Yan, Yuen Shun-Yi, and Lau Kar-Wing comes to full speed here and would become the influence of the climatic fight sequence between D’Artagnan and Febre in the 2001 film The Musketeer. That film’s stunt coordinator, Xiong Xin-Xin, would work as Jet Li’s stunt double on this film and would go on to play Clubfoot from installments three through the finale.

A true kung fu classic drama, Once Upon a Time in China is definitely one of the best to come from Tsui Hark. It is more than a martial arts film, but a look at how the eyes of a martial artist opens to the world of Western cultures in China.

Golden Harvest Pictures present a Film Workshop production. Director: Tsui Hark. Producer: Tsui Hark. Writers: Tsui Hark, Yuen Kai-Chi, Edward Leung, and Elsa Tang. Cinematography: Ardy Lam, Bill Wong, David Chung, Arthur Wong, Wingo Chan, and Wilson Chan. Editing: Marco Mak.

Cast: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Yuen Gam-Fai, Yen Shi-Kwan, Lau Shun, Wu Ma, Karel Wong, Jonathan Isgar, Mark King, Steve Tartalia, Colin George, Joanna Peijffers.