Expectations of Martial Art films have changed significantly over the decades. The days of getting cheesy English dubs for live action Martial Art movies are gone now with most home video releases of offering people to see them in their original language. Even when the films do receives English dub they are not as silly as what was release in the 70s. Another thing that also changed over time was the fight choreography implementing the environment as part in the fight during the 70s, and then pushing martial artists body limits during the 80s. An era which created plentiful of Martial Art classic films giving rise to legends Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Then came the 90s where some Chinese talent went oversea to find success in Hollywood. While the quantity of great martial films wasn’t as high as in the 80s the quality of them improved with some offering more complex plot lines. However, while there is more to the history of the subgenre than my broad generalization there’s no mistaking during the 2000s that China dominance over the Martial Arts subgenre dwindle as legendary talents were aging, and therefore not perform like they use too. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai wants to be a one of those classics from the subgenre heydays in a time where characters were kept simple, and emphasis on fight choreography was the norm. While it is an homage to those kind of films martial art films of the past. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai doesn’t ignite the same kind of feelings of those earlier films it loves.
Once Upon A Time In Shanghai tells the story of a laborer who moves to Shanghai in the hope of becoming rich. From that synopsis, if you’re familiar with crime films that contain an immigrant as the protagonist there’s no need tell readers what to expect. While it is a classic story to tell in the crime genre of immigrant hoping to make it big in foreign land it’s also been told countless of times. It’s telegraphed from the overly strong, naive country-bumpkin protagonist Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), the young ambitious new criminal on the block Long Qi (Andy On), the father whose disapprove of the criminal lifestyle Master Tie (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), the young woman who eventually falls in love for the naive protagonist Tie Mei (Luxia Jiang), and a few singular purpose background characters. Making these characters arcs more predictable is adding martial arts replacing gun wielding gangsters for fists, and axes. Instead of touching on the subject of family there are few discussions about honor, and fighting. Retaining the classic story of beat of crime families uniting to eliminate a great threat that could overthrow them in power. So forth is the nature of the film to ooze old fashion cinema on everything. What this ends up creating is a typical story that aims to pay homage without changing anything. If you’re not familiar with these kind of stories the undercooked plot beats won’t make it engaging. Containing the moments you would expect from hero Ma Yongzhen becoming good friends with Long Qi after a fight, the two new friends talking about dreams on a bridge at night looking at the stars, and Ma Yongzhen given the option to run away when things become chaotic. The scenes are in place for creating good material, but the rush nature of a script that had too many ideas don’t allow time to develop them to their fullest effect.
The first signs of trouble in the script appears before the title card does. There’s text that (paraphrasing) says that Shanghai is a city of dreams for the people of China, and hard work can get you the life you want, but the thousand of youths coming into Shanghai are tempted to take the easy way out to by becoming gangsters. This text is delivered while dramatic music plays in the background, the film grayish color filter to show some harshness in the situation, and showing the viewers a crowded deck filled with immigrants with their head held down. This sets up the idea it’ll be touching on the realistic issues dealt with achieving the “American Dream” (well, in this case the “Shanghai Dream”) with martial arts as a bonus. Then it shows a grown man taking away a Potato from a starving girl which naturally makes one wonder how the immediate harsh tone will be followed up with. PUNCH! Out of nowhere a single punch is all it take to conflict with the tone established leading into a heavily edited fight scene. A fight scene where our main character kicks two baddies several feet from the ground is an odd contrast after seeing a deck of depressing looking immigrants. Now there was a better way to transition into the fight scene. Some simple dialogue of the grown man rudely stating he’s still hungry with our hero telling him to give it back to the little girl. When the grown man says no giving the signal to his buddy to prepare for a fight would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the fight scene, and transition into fight scene more smoothly. However, this opening never bothers bringing up why the grown man stole the Potato simply assuming the viewer will make assumption this immigrant is bad for stealing food from a little girl. Though, without context given in the scenario it could easily be interpreted as a grown man getting back food stolen from him.
The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of issues. There’s a scene early in the film where our hero helps an old man who stole opium from a gang, but the old man the protagonist helps goes nowhere. Then, there’s the romance aspect of the film which is underdeveloped. Our protagonist spends more time with his boss than he does his love interest. Also, there’s a subplot of our hero meeting up with his brother which disappears as it goes on. If a plot point is not underdeveloped it’s either forgotten about. The only aspect of the writing that works to any degree is Ma Yongzhen bracelet. His bracelet was given to him by his mother, and was given words of wisdom that would remind of Ma Yongzhen not to kill. It’s a simple motive where the outcome of the bracelet is telegraphed, but it was executed just fine. It’s just a shame there’s not much depth in it usage. A simple solution to the writing would have been to make the story longer, though given it wanted to be an homage script writer Jing Wong probably felt being derivative was the best bet. To his credit, the movie does progress naturally, and knows the classical story beats of old fashioned cinema to mirror classic martial art films from the era. However, by simply placing those classical story beats into the film his lack of understanding shows when he has no idea what made them work in the first place. While the film is superficially reminiscent of some classic martial art films with similar stories like Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), and Shaw Brother’s Boxer from Shantung (1972) it doesn’t build on its inspiration. It just ends up being typical in how it unfolds, and average as an homage that doesn’t illustrate what made its source of inspiration classic films in the sub genre.
Philip Ng takes center stage portraying Ma Yongzhen in a role that is more demanding of his looks than his acting skills. Appearances wise, Philip Ng nails the expressions of a country bumpkin in his naivete optimism. Switching between badass martial artist, and your average joe seamlessly. Another aspect of his look that works to his advantage is fitting the bill of coming across the average joe. Sporting a look that is reminiscent of Bruce Lee from The Big Boss, and Jackie Chan from Battle Creek Brawl. When he performs in the fight scenes he’s convincing, though not impressive for his lack of speed in performing the fights. What Ng doesn’t share among the likes of Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan are the charisma of those actors. Try as he might, but Ng simply comes across as trying to hard to look cool, especially in the end of the film. In terms of line delivery he’s okay. He doesn’t have the timing to be funny, nor the lack of understanding to ruin a joke. Ng doesn’t come across as someone threatening when he fights, but is alright in the moments he’s not need in combat. For the role Ng is in it’s adequate, even if lacking star power.
Next up is Andy On who plays Long Qi. His performance is also adequate. On doesn’t demonstrate very difficult emotions as scenes don’t linger much on complex emotions. However, he has style, and doesn’t phone in his acting. Much like Ng, Andy On fighting is convincing in the few times he fights. He also has good chemistry with Philip Ng making what scenes they share together the film best offering in terms of acting. It’s where the best moments come from as the two really sell their friendship, even if the writing is not up to par. Both actress Michelle Hu, and Luxia Jiang don’t get much to do in the film beside looking pretty. They’re both the love interests to perspective characters caring for their lover, and showing concerns. Not much to discuss. There’s also no well known legends in the west martial art film stars Kuan Tai Chen, and Hark-On Fung whom presence in the film are not noticeable unless you know your martial art films. Now if you’re exciting to see well known martial art legend Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who gets top billing, he is barely in the film. Hung Kam-Bo doesn’t get to show much of his acting, and fighting prowess’s in the film as he fights only briefly in one scene. Unless you’re a fan of martial art films the lack of screen presence from Tai Chen, Hark-On, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo will seem insignificant, but for those who do know them will make their inclusion in film lackluster of wasted talent.
The fight choreography is done by Yuen Woo-Ping whom name would be selling a point to fans of martial art films. Unfortunately in this instance a master of fight choreography isn’t at his best. A reason for this being with the exception for two, all the fight scenes are one sighted leaving no opportunity for counter moves, or complex maneuver to perform for the actors. Another aspects of the fights that take away from the fight choreography is them being overly edited. All the fight scenes have tempered speed which tends to ruin the flow of a fight scene when switching between fast, slow, and back to regular motion frequently. Applied with quick editing that changes up shots the editing doesn’t play to the fight scenes strength. If the speed of the fights weren’t tampered with Philip Ng (who performs in most of them) isn’t a quick a performer. Usage of wires are noticeable in some instances as one might take notice that defying physics, and taking yourself seriously don’t go hand in hand.
There’s a fight in the film that is done in one take which sounds impressive until I tell you the post production work that ruined it. The one take fight scene is sped up while typical for the film is more noticeable in this sequence. If performed well, and on time than the sequence wouldn’t need alteration. Then, there’s not framing half of the sequence correctly as there is moment where it does not show Philip Ng fighting against actors. The camera gets to close barely capturing some of Philip Ng blows as it continuously spins around until the fight scene ends. Before the fight scene occurs there are only three people visible ready to fight, but as soon as Philip Ng attacks, and the camera spins around more actors are suddenly in frame. This also creates a continuity error, though that isn’t anything unexpected for action scenes. Everything else in the film is adequate. For a film paying homage you’ll get the shots you expect, and the same applies to the music. Not much to be surprised by as director Ching Po Wong made generally safe choices. His only truly questionable is making the entire film gray instead of black & white. In few scenes there’s some semblance of color so it’s jarring why Po Wong simply didn’t choose to filter the film in black & white.
Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is wholly average as a movie, an average showcase of martial arts, and average anything you could think off. It takes the classic ideas associated with the “American Dream” in a crime a story along with the classic imagery one would expect from this kind of story. All without throwing its own flare to familiar ideas. As an homage it doesn’t disrespect old fashion cinema, but at the same time does nothing to represent the best elements of old fashioned cinema. Having too much on its plate, and not enough time to make all the ideas it has be put to good use. If you only want to see it for the action the fight scenes are edited heavily with motion of speed being played with in all of them, and virtually every fight being one sided in the favor of what the story demands. Choreography wise it’s okay with a few making little use of what’s in the environment, but the actors performing them aren’t as skillful as the stars they pay homage to. This movie doesn’t falter seriously, but neither excel in anything at the same time either.