The martial arts in this one are amazing, but that’s not all there is to this film.
I love a good martial arts film but too often they end up disappointing me. Often, the action is, to put it charitably, really lame–with punches and kicks that obviously do not connect and ridiculous sound effects that are laughable. And, in a few cases, I’ve seen films that feature some amazingly skilled fighting but the story is paper-thin. Fortunately, with Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, you have a film that manages to do both–with some of the best and most brutal fighting you’ll ever see as well as an interesting story.
This film is set in Shanghai in 1930 and is done in black & white (with a few artistic colors used very sparingly and artistically). If you are a retired history teacher like me, you’ll be thrilled and disappointed by this. The cars and some of the costumes really are not from the right period –and the picky history teacher in me noticed that! But, I do appreciate how the film has a historical context and is based somewhat on events of the day.
Back in 1930, Shanghai was a pretty wild town–with gangs and drugs and the like which you see in the film. But what makes this interesting historically is that the Japanese are also in the movie and are clearly villains. In real life, Japan would soon begin a full scale invasion of China that would last over a decade. Most westerners have forgotten about this horrible period in Chinese history (many millions were killed) but the filmmakers haven’t nor have the Chinese. And, making them the villains clearly is something that would appeal to Chinese audiences–especially in the finale when Ma screams “Get the hell out of China!!”. While there is still a lot of animosity between the nations today despite efforts by both governments over the years to improve relations and we can only hope this continues.
As for the story, Ma (Philip Ng) arrives penniless in this big town and needs work. However, he and his fellow villagers didn’t realize that Shanghai was a really rough place–with rival gangs running the streets. Not surprisingly, soon the nice newcomers are caught up in the violence of the streets. The only local who seems decent is an odd character played by Sammo Hung (a frequent collaborator with Jackie Chan)–and Ma inexplicably falls for the man’s incredibly grouchy daughter. However, this romance doesn’t have much time to blossom because of all the violence between rival gangs. One of these thugs, Long Qi (Andy On), is amazingly tough–and his martial arts skills are insanely good. And soon he and Ma end up coming up against each other.
Here is where the film gets really good. Instead of Long Qi killing Ma or vice-versa, the pair are so evenly matched that they actually become friends. But Ma is a good soul and manages to not only stay pure of heart but become almost like Long Qi’s brother. So everyone lives happily ever after, right?! Nah…this IS a martial arts film and soon the really bad bad-guys arrive–and the Japanese are not about to let some gangs or some country bumpkin like Ma stand in their way.
What’s next? Watch the film for yourself—you won’t be disappointed. As I mentioned above, the fight sequences are amazing…no,…they are brilliant. Intense, fast, highly skilled and insane are all words that come to mind. Plus, while the heroes are a bit too super-human (they can manage to STILL hang on after 137934 stab wounds!!), the fight sequences themselves don’t appear too super-human! There are very, very few Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sorts of wire-fu techniques in this film and I appreciate this. Yes, I know some of you readers love these–I still prefer the more realistic action sequences like you’ll see in films like this as well as the Street Fighter series (with Sonny Chiba), the Gina Carano films as well as Ip Man.
Now all this sounds like I am super-excited about this film. Well, I am … though I have a few reservations. The back story is a bit weak (it involves a bracelet and a promise to mother) and unnecessary. Additionally using the ‘Once Upon a Time in’ part of the title is a problem since so many good and bad films have used this in their titles–such as Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Once Upon a Time in Vietnam, Once Upon a Time in China (1, 2 and 3) and many more–and none of these films have anything to do with each other and can confuse viewers!! Still, Ching-Po Wong has crafted a fine action film–and one of the best ones I’ve seen in recent memory.
Review by Lead Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Martin Hafer