Set in the turbulent world of 19th-century China, University of Texas alumnus Hark has fashioned an epic tale of a country and its people in the throws of societal upheaval and sudden change. As the western world begins its less-than-honorable encroachment onto Chinese soil, Hark's characters find themselves in conflict with not only Westernization, but also themselves and their place in the future of their country. If that sounds like a rather dry setup, it's because plotwise, this is one tough film to describe, shrouded as it is in layers of traditional Chinese views and politics. Once you get past the often confusing storyline, though, the rest of the film is left wide open for some of the most exhilarating fight scenes this side of Jackie Chan. Martial arts expert Jet Li stars as Wong Fei-Hung, the legendary Chinese hero (nearly 100 films have been made about his outrageous exploits so far), who, along with his many disciples (and it seems as though nearly everyone in this film either wants to become a disciple of Master Wong, or wipe him off the face of the earth), acts as a savior to the common man by fending off the violent attacks of the rival Shaho Tong and subverting the corruptive siren song of the nattily-dressed Westerners whose promises of an America paved with streets of gold are merely a hollow ruse to ensnare slave labor. There are subplots galore -- most of them indecipherable in a single viewing, but Jet Li's brilliantly choreographed fight scenes are an adrenaline-fueled rush, whether it's in a warehouse with too many bamboo ladders lying around, or out in the open with nothing but an umbrella as a weapon. Once Upon a Time in China
remains one of the most profitable motion pictures in Hong Kong film history, and it's obvious why: Hark's manic shooting style, a combination love story/action flick/history lesson, lavish sets, and powerful acting combine almost seamlessly in a tumultuous riot of inspired filmmaking. Now if I could only learn Chinese.