Once Upon a Time in Shanghai Review: A secret desire to see a Sammo Hung vs. Chen Kuan Tai match

In a Hong Kong which continues to be starved of performers who can deliver screen presence, charisma, and kung-fu skills, the trend over recent years seem to be to push the talented martial artists that usually take on supporting roles to the fore, making them front and centre and hoping for the best. Wu Jing pulled off directing and leading man duties in 2008’s Legendary Assassin, with only lukewarm results; Xing Yu took top billing in 2013’s Wrath of Vajra, displaying all the screen presence of a rock; and in 2014, Philip Ng was pushed to the forefront for Once Upon A Time in Shanghai.

Just like Wu Jing and Xing Yu, Ng has consistently shone brightly and briefly in his many supporting roles. However, also just like Wu Jing and Xing Yu, the real question here is can he carry a whole movie by himself? Thankfully in Once Upon A Time in Shanghai (Ac Chien). He gets to share the screen with a high caliber of Hong Kong talent, both new and old. In many ways the cast is like a roll call of Hong Kong fighting talent – Andy On, Jiang Luxia, Sammo Hung, Chen Kuan Tai, Fung Hak On and Yuen Cheung Yan (who bizarrely sounds like Darth Vader here) are all in the mix, reading like a kung fu fan’s dream.

The story is also reminiscent of the Hong Kong movie industries glory days, as it tells the tale of Ma Wing-Jing. A country bumpkin who comes to 1930’s Shanghai in the hopes of living the big city life in a virtuous and honest manner. The tale has been told in many different formats. Including the 1972 Shaw Brothers movie The Boxer From Shantung, in which Wang-Jing is played by Chen Kuan Tai (who also appears in this version), and again in 1997’s Hero, in which the role is taken on by Takeshi Kaneshiro. Both Kuan Tai and Kaneshiro have strong onscreen personas, so Ng has been left with some big shoes to fill, and understandably, he somewhat falters.

The story goes that Ma Wang-Jing comes to Shanghai as an innocent country bumpkin.

Who eventually falls in with some local gangsters and begins to be corrupted by power. A change which is important to convey in any version of the tale. However here that change isn’t conveyed at all. But this isn’t due to Ng’s acting, we’ll return to that point later. What Ng does convey is a sense of awe at the bright lights of Shanghai, but unfortunately. He seems to confuse acting like a gape jawed idiot as a look which conveys innocence. It doesn’t.

Speaking of the bright city lights, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re not that bright at all. Because the movie’s color palette is so washed out that it’s essentially black and white. With only the slightest splashes of color. Such as Ng’s jade bracelet or some red lipstick. This color scheme worked in movies like Sin City. But here it just looks a little off, like they should either make it full color or make it completely black and white. On a side note, the original publicity poster which was distributed reflected this color scheme. However, as it neared release, all of the new publicity shots that came out were shown in full color. Which was somewhat misleading whichever way you look at it.

Sammo Hung vs. Chen Kuan Tai match, but it didn’t happen

This decision was probably a choice of director Wong Ching Po. Who’s known for his quirky movies such as Let’s Go! and Revenge: A Love Story. There are times when it does work, and the movie starts off strongly, with Ng displaying his fighting prowess on a boat, and then his first interactions when he arrives in Shanghai. However, the movie is also scripted by Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s master of low brow entertainment. Wong can deliver when he wants to, and in fact some of the sets here look to be the same used on 2013’s excellent The Last Tycoon, which he wrote and directed, however here the story shows signs that he probably wasn’t putting a lot of effort in.

A disturbing amount of randomness seems to enter the martial arts movie (phim hanh dong vo thuat) at various inappropriate moments. Most of which involve poor Andy On. A scene suddenly cuts away to him sitting in his living room with a live tiger prowling around. In a moment of manly bonding with Ng. He explains the origin of a hotdog and how the sausage was too slippery to hold bare handed; and to top it all off, he has to frequently break out of character to deliver hysterically fake evil laughter. It’s all very unintentionally funny. And you have to frequently remind yourself that it’s supposed to be a serious movie whenever these moments occur.

There are aspects of the action which will frustrate though, or more specifically

Thankfully, unlike some recent movies like The Viral Factor and Naked Soldier. On gets to unleash his fists and feet at regular intervals, here under the choreography of Yuen Woo Ping. The second time they’ve worked together after 2009’s True Legend. On is probably the closest thing Hong Kong has right now to the perfect thespian: he has the looks. The screen presence, and the moves, topped off with perfect English. Ng is the star of the show of course. And he gets plenty of opportunities to also bust out the moves. His mid-film fight with On being a highlight. The choice of camera work is not always the best in the fight scenes, but thankfully. There is a lack of the dreaded shaky-cam, and we get to see that Ng’s skills are undoubtedly the real deal.

There are aspects of the action which will frustrate though, or more specifically. The absence of action by some performers. Jiang Luxia, once heralded as the next Yukari Oshima, continues her decline of being in movies in which she has virtually no lines and even less action. I don’t know why she was even here, as she’s basically a glorified extra. I confess to harboring a secret desire to see a Sammo Hung (Hong Kim Bao) vs. Chen Kuan Tai match, but it didn’t happen. Without giving too much away, I also found the finishing move Ng pulls off against the first Japanese fighter in the finale to be laugh out loud funny, rather than the ‘wow, that was cool’ reaction it was probably going for.

This was also par of the course in many of the 1970’s kung fu movies

While on the subject of the Japanese. It brings me back to my point regarding Wang-Jing’s corruption by wealth and power. As I mentioned this part is a crucial change for the character. But of course both The Boxer of Shantung and Hero were made before Hong Kong’s handover back to China. So didn’t need to worry about such things as appeasing the China censorship board. In Once Upon A Time in Shanghai the character Ng portrays is much more two dimensional. And dare I say dull, compared to previous depictions.

So instead of being corrupted by power and taking on his own country men in the form of the axe gang. Ng is left stuck with a plot which pits him against, you guessed it – the Japanese! Jet Li fought them in Fearless; Donnie Yen fought them in Legend of the Fist and Ip Man; and Xing Yu fought them in The Wrath of Vajra; but hey, clearly not enough mileage has been traveled with the Japanese villains plot device yet.

While of course this was also par of the course in many of the 1970’s kung fu movies. The in your face nationalism that seems to come packaged with it these days definitely wasn’t. And here once again it’s On who is given the embarrassingly cringe worthy line of yelling out how he’ll never let China be ruled by Westerners or the Japanese. For a simple story of a country bumpkin who comes to make a living in the big city, the jarring but predictable turn of events that make it all about the unwavering Chinese spirit against the Japanese will likely induce a yawn. How much you enjoy the movie will probably come down to balancing a love of fight scenes with a high level of patience.

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