Sat. Sep 30th, 2023

Jet Li and Tsui Hark get most of the credit for the Once Upon a Time in China films, but Rosamund Kwan’s 13th Aunt lends them that special charm

In the early days of cable TV in India, which were my early days as well, two credit sequences set my imagination on fire. The first was Chariots Of Fire (1981), for the Vangelis theme, of course, but also Nigel Havers’ beatific smile registering among the serious runners on the beach.

The other was also a beach scene, also partly in slow motion, with a theme song almost as catchy. This was from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China (1991), a phalanx of bare-chested martial club students executing a series of strenuous, eye-catching workouts.

By the time the 1990s got under way, Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark had already made cult favourite Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain (1983) and the masterful Peking Opera Blues (1986) and produced John Woo’s heroic bloodshed classics A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989).

In 1991, he embarked on the project he’s arguably most associated with today, a six-film cycle chronicling the adventures of medic and martial artist Wong Fei-hung in late 19th century Foshan. It made a star of Jet Li, who played Wong in the first three films (he was replaced by Vincent Zhao in the fourth and fifth instalments). The final entry, Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997), which predates Jackie Chan’s kung fu Western Shanghai Noon (2000), was directed by Sammo Hung, with Li back in the lead.

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