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Once Upon A Time A Hero In China (1992, Lee Lik-Chi)

Strictly a spoof/comedic take on the character of Wong Fei-Hung (played by Alan Tam here). Fits into the timeline as Tsui Hark just scored big with Once Upon A Time In China and you had mostly waves of wire-fu movies as a result but Lee Lik-Chi goes for almost all comedy and placing himself more in the nonsense comedy camp as headlined by Stephen Chow usually. With Tam's Wong Fei-Hung officially being a grand master but behind closed doors just capable of cooking, it's a fun reversal to see his trusted disciples (Simon Yam, Eric Tsang and Ng Man-Tat) run the show and maintain the image of their school. Initially the verbal banter and overlapping dialogue doesn't create comedic momentum but through investment into the role and the energy Alan Tam brings, there is a momentum created. Leading to further parodies of elements from Tsui Hark's series but it's a mostly self contained movie with a very simple premise of Tony Leung Ka-Fai's Shek wanting to be the number one martial artist in the town. Sometimes key is not elaborate gags or plotting but performer-energy and while some are exaggerated without effect, you have a main one in Alan Tam that very much understands this role. That's what makes this a loud, swift time. Also with Teresa Mo.

Once Upon A Time In China IV (1993, Yuen Bun)

Part 4 changes director (but Tsui Hark co-penned the script and produced), its lead and new Wong Fei-Hung in the form of Vincent Zhao could've showcased more promise if some material was flung his way. As it stand now, Once Upon A Time In China IV feels quickly conceived, lazy and rehashed. Amping up the lion dance content merged with the threat of foreign influence, by part 4 the former starts alienating audiences as the extensive spectacle isn't all that impressive and the dramatic connected to foreign powers fizzles out quickly. Yuen Bun isn't able to make it come across as peril for China and its characters but instead we get a competent looking production, more pronounced comedy via Wong Fei-Hung's disciples, Rosamund Kwan's Aunt Yee gone in favour of Jean Wang's Aunt May (cue forced, possible new romantic angle) and wire enhanced action isn't going places awe-inspiring places anymore. The grounded martial arts with Zhao is rousing however, our over the top bad guys (Chin Ka-Lok and a horse punching Billy Chow) add colour during the non-stop last reel or two of action and there's fair enjoyment watching this in feel stand alone adventure. But the series has meant more emotionally, it was a guiding light for makers of the new wave of kung fu but by now the makers are starting to lose sight of what made it inspiring. The choice to strip it and to rehash certain content isn't the kiss of death but the makers do not rise above that unfortunately.

Once Upon A Time In China V (1994, Tsui Hark)

Tsui Hark is back directing, Yuen Bun handles action and order is restored in the series. Getting back to acknowledging threads established in character relationships, in particular between Aunt Yee and Wong Fei-Hung (Vincent Zhao), the first positive move is the return of Rosamund Kwan as the former. Still having to deal with a romantic triangle clumsily introduced in part 4 via the sister of Aunt Yee played by Jean Wang, at least now we know what a beating heart Kwan represents for the series. This then means there's material to work with and Vincent Zhao's stoic nature, warmth and inexperience as a romantic partner comes to life nicely in scenes with Kwan. Meaning the transition to a new Wong Fei-Hung is doing its thing reliably after a weak outing in 4. Even the comedy amidst Wong's disciples is more focused, true to character and by re-introducing even more cast of characters (including the return of Kent Cheng as Lam Sai-Wing), Tsui Hark really makes his case well that a fifth entry is warranted. Oh, the movie is playful and to a degree like a separate adventure from the rest with Wong Fei-Hung battling against pirates but coupled with a sometimes brutal edge to this scenario and Tsui's belief in this spectacle, all of a sudden moments come off as more lively and assured. At one point guns were the enemy of kung-fu, part 5 sees Wong and disciples having to embrace the technology, leading to fun surprises involving a very able Buckteeth So (Roger Kwok). Yuen Bun's action is largely very thrilling too with occasional demonstration of grounded kung fu via Zhao and Hung Yan-Yan but the heavy usage of wires is not a problem at all. Because scenarios are back to feeling very creative, with the centerpiece in the pirate's cave being a highlight and this execution as well as coherency working with so many wire shots and extraordinary character-abilities really feels alive. Even thoroughly on the nose social commentary for the end clicks in the way Tsui Hark managed to do throughout the first three entries.

Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997, Sammo Hung)

The one part of the series that truly feels disconnected from a main narrative or thematic throughline. And it's not a bad choice, even if the whole affair can be mentally disposed of quickly too. Jet Li returns as Wong Fei-Hung in the adventure taking him, fiancee Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and Clubfoot (Hung Yan-Yan) to a Po Chi Lam branch setup in America and the old West. Shooting in synch sound Mandarin and English, having established interactions now being live is a treat despite the latter language giving way to some rather weak acting from the Western cast. Wong Fei-Hung meets Billy (Jeff Wolfe), loses his memory in an accident, gets taken in by a tribe of Indians (shades of Jackie's vehicles of Who Am I? and Shanghai Noon) and has to deal with racism and corruption as well. Costume- and production design is professional, the Texas location authentic enough but Sammo Hung isn't really making a serious bid as a maker of Westerns. No, this is a basic Wong Fei-Hung adventure in a new setting and ultimately we connect more to how the 6th entry is going about its thing action-wise. Mostly well, Jet is noticeably doubled but performs most of the grounded exchanges really well and it's where the choreography shines the most (Hung Yan Yan continues to impress when wires are not employed and even Kwan performs a few action-beats admirably well). Wired performers and props for brief moments within such scenes becomes rather thrilling and while it isn't the next, big, evolving step for the wire-fu craze of the 90s, dependent work isn't a bad verdict either. Larger than life villains signals some fun initially but that fails to break out and really only feels inspired when part of the Hong Kong style. But as a standalone Wong Fei-Hung adventure, the 6th take is lively to a decent enough degree without rivaling the initial trio of films in particular. Also with Chan Kwok-Bong, Patrick Lung, Richard Ng and Joseph Sayah.

Once Upon A Time In Triad Society (1996) Directed by: Cha Chuen-Yee

Image stolen with kind permission from lovehkfilm.com

A spin off from the popular Young And Dangerous films, Once Upon A Time In Triad Society presents us with the life of Ugly Kwan (Francis Ng, reprising his role), only it's not set in the same movie universe as that mentioned series of films. Clearly, director Chan Chuen-Yee wants to break free from triad movie conventions and he goes for very black humour and cleverness instead. That makes for entertaining viewing as we follow the repulsive Kwan (within the first 5 minutes he's managed to attempt to rape a girl, get her father killed, send her to the middle East to become a prostitute and violently assault a Japanese triad) who gets shot and while he's down and out, recaps his young days in the triad society for us viewers. One where he tried to favor righteousness, up until a certain point where he made the decision to become the beast he's now known for.

Just when we thought we took a liking to Kwan, the writers provides us with an insanely funny twist midthrough, staying very much true to the character who, even in death, won't budge from his arc and it puts a fun spin to what we thought was the reality of the tale. Francis Ng, in a breakthrough performance, is an entertaining anti-hero to watch. Whether it's him fighting for righteousness, encountering love or just plain being as nasty as nasty men can be, Francis will have you go round in circles as to why you should even care to watch. Quickly, you do realize that Kwan is such an over the top creation, more or less out of a comic book, that it's impossible to connect him to any form of reality. Loletta Lee and Chan Wai-Man co-stars.

Kwan's life lesson out of all this is simple; It's fun being a triad! That should hopefully tell you a lot about him and the mood Chan Chuen-Yee has gone for. And it is indeed fun. An acclaimed sequel followed the same year, also starring Ng and directed by Chan Chuen-Yee.

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Once Upon A Time In Triad Society 2 (1996) Directed by: Cha Chuen-Yee

Others would've copied the success of the first one but Cha Chuen-Yee went a different direction with his follow up, in name only, to Once Upon A Time In Triad Society. This time he and writer Chung Kai Cheong are concentrating on one crucial and typical event in any triad movie, the big brawl, and how it will affect a few different individuals during the course of the night. It's interesting how we're this time set up a set of characters with characteristics that normally don't dominate the genre. You have Roy Cheung's Dinosaur, the typical always eager to fight triad who, after blood is shed, manages to open both eyes to the love around him. Cheung Tat-Ming plays a cop who's neglected his pregnant wife and finally there's the pathetic Dagger (Francis Ng), a triad who would rather do anything BUT being involved with usual triad activities. Partly, these people really represent a surprisingly serious theme about the film which is about accepting responsibility and it also works splendidly well. Cha Chuen-Yee is again using staples of the genre in his own very special way.

If there's any fault to Once Upon A Time In Triad Society 2 is that it takes a while for it to ignite but when it does, Cha is on a definite roll and very much more so when fully concentrating on Francis Ng's story. Dagger is all talk and less action and Ng brings the pathetic nature to him that wouldn't have grown so much on you if there was a lesser actor portraying Dagger. You do miss the outrageousness he brought to Ugly Kwan but it's again testament to Ng's superb talents that he can bring out an unexpected nature to an expected character. Ugly Kwan thought it was fun being a triad, Dagger and the people around him, whatever choosen path in life that they're on, would agree that it's not as comfortable as they would like. Also appearing in supporting roles are Ada Choi, Ivy Leung, Ha Ping and Lee Kin-Yan.

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One And A Half (1995) Directed by: Lawrence Lau

Ma (Zhang Fengyi - Farewell My Concubine) is let out of prison after completing a manslaughter sentence. Finding out that his wife DuXia (Carrie Ng) has remarried, his meeting with her brother (Paul Chun) carries the message that the son in the family (Siu Jun-Kwan) is not Ma's but that his died young of a heart disease. Refusing to believe that fact, Ma takes DuXia's son on a road trip to reclaim his own worth, face his fears and prove his fatherhood. Some would call that kidnapping too...

Lawrence Lau (Spacked Out, My Name Is Fame) shoots this road movie in China, adding synch sound Mandarin and that gosh darn, criminal cinema-simplicity that makes for gems in this reviewer's mind. Being nicely unpredictable with the drama as Ma is an irrational guy that could really genuinely be out to do harm to an otherwise solid family. He is in his ways abusive but is out to throw out the spoiled kid in favour of one knowing about the rough life he very well could've had. Before things are made clear, we're very glad to be pulled in a few different directions. We don't know things, Lau's direction of writers Liu Heng (Judou, The Story Of Qiuju) and Cheung Tan's (Dragon Inn, The Promise) screenplay doesn't reveal anything but small doses at a time, equaling in-depth character building and One And A Half excels via this choice. Warm humour and usually gentle emotions, the show is undoubtedly Zhang Fengyi and Siu Jun-Kwan's, opposite performers that strike up wonderful chemistry. Played, directed clearly and with subtlety, it looks too easy almost. One of Lawrence Lau's very best films.

The One Armed Boxer (1971) Directed by: Jimmy Wang Yu

One of several martial arts movies where Jimmy Wang Yu played the One Armed Boxer (or Swordsman), this time directing himself. Production values are good (probably using standing sets but still...), Jimmy's directing shows some decent quality in the camerawork department but unfortunately the action falls flat for the most part. First half just shows endless early 70s choreography that, despite having an array of different fighting characters, fails to entertain. Second half really ignites though when the One Armed Boxer comes back for revenge and we see small signs of the creativity later seen in Master Of The Flying Guillotine. Jimmy was hot property back then and especially shined in this role, despite his lack of true skills. Some of the same fighting characters subsequently was featured in and put to better use in Master Of The Flying Guillotine. That is also the movie you'll probably want to watch first if you're curious about this character. Jimmy Wang Yu's film was released on dvd in Japan but this edition is now out of print.

One-Armed Swordsman (1967) Directed by: Chang Cheh

One of the greatest Shaw Brother's classics feels underwhelming today now that we're since long past the glory days of martial arts cinema but it's important to place it in the context of the era in which it was made. It was a groundbreaking swordplay effort then, hugely successful all over Asia and late director Chang Cheh firmly established his reputation as well as directing Jimmy Wang Yu to stardom.

It is thematically that One Armed Swordsman holds its greatest strengths today as Jimmy Wang Yu's character faces alienation and unjustly has to pay a huge price for being the outsider. Even when adapting himself to his crippled state, he remains an honorable hero and no doubt, that trait remains inspirational, even in its simple form. As a martial artist, Jimmy wasn't classically trained (but a good swimmer!) and does appear sluggish. As does the actual martial arts action on display, despite being choreographed by Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gai. Again, put into historical context, its style may seemed fresh back then but huge developments would occur in on screen action, in particular by Lau Kar Leung himself when starting out as a director in his own right. Lau Kar Leung himself appears as well as Fan Mei Sheng, Tien Feng, Mars, Yuen Woo-Ping and probably a whole host of then and now familiar faces.

Further polish technically comes in the form of the well-designed, albeit clearly studio bound, sets at Shaw's, which are given a good workout by director Chang Cheh. His actual narrative ranges from captivating to a bit tedious as clearly the most interest lie in the journey Jimmy's character goes through and when focusing on the rival clan subplot, One Armed Swordsman doesn't seem to stand out. Also, directing of actors can feel a bit theatrical at times and melodrama is less than subtle but nonetheless, finally seeing One Armed Swordsman restored is a blessing. Both as a seminal work for its time but also seeing the strengths it's managed to carry over into the new millennium.

Tsui Hark took the basic premise for his dark and dirty The Blade in 1995, an insane new wave classic in its own right. Jimmy Wang Yu would also take the concept of the one armed hero with him when going independent and creating some wonderfully weird and entertaining vehicles such as One Armed Boxer (in which the famous armbreak is legendary ludicrous. Chang definitely made it more of a harrowing scene in One Armed Swordsman.) and Master Of The Flying Guillotine with it.

Note that One Armed Swordsman can be bought as part of the One-Armed Swordsman Trilogy Box Set and now also as a standalone dvd.

Bey the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Buy the One-Armed Swordsman Trilogy at:
HK Flix.com

One Arm Hero (1993) Directed by: Wei Han-Tao

Entertaining and affecting close to the "Sam The Iron Bridge Trilogy" (White Lotus Cult and Sam The Iron Bridge - Champion Of Martial Arts preceded it) by Wei Han-Tao (possibly thanks to this efficiency, producer Stephen Shin brought him onboard the 1994 epic The Great Conqueror's Concubine). Sam Liang-Kun (Do Siu-Chun) is now the Governor of Canton and his righteous self refuses to play the corrupt officials game with the likes of Prince Mu (Wong Kam-Kong), the father of Princess Keke (Fennie Yuen). In terms of the love triangle between Liang-Kun, Keke and Tieh (Yip Chuen-Chan), Liang-Kun's heart is decided and the marriage with Tieh finally takes place. Still thinking of his lower class friends as well, Liang-Kun's outstanding, human choices will not erase the dark forces wishing the government to be headed into more corrupt directions however. When Japanese pirates invade China, Liang-Kun is forced to use the locked up silver reserve to buy guns and this gives his enemies, in particular Prince Ting (Chiu Cheung-Gwan - Blade Of Fury) the excuse they want to put away Liang-Kun...

A darker and more emotional tale, one of the throughlines of the series that manages to resonate under Wei Han-Tao's direction is the love triangle. In particular Fennie Yuen's Keke goes through a development where she's not let her emotions create hatred towards Liang-Kun. On the contrary, she's devoted to look after his life if needed, leading to a common understanding between the trio. Director Wei also keeps the mixture of politics, action and drama simple and One Arm Hero finally shows hints of promise on the lower scale it works within compared to the Once Upon A Time In China-series. We get a sense of pay off but there's an endurance test across two movies that comes with that. Phillip Kwok's action mixes poorly staged battle scenes with a well-conveyed sense of choreographing the grounded with the wire-assisted. Lily Li again co-stars as Sister Hung.

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