The West has Billy the Kid and the East has Wong Fei-hung... and if ever the twain shall meet I will lose all faith in humanity and moviemaking. [Check out Shanghai Noon. -Ed.] Wong Fei-hung, arguably the biggest folk hero in Chinese legend and cinema, has shown up in various movies and dime novels in China since the 1930s. In America, he's just begun to make a real dent... showing up via Jackie Chan in The Legend of Drunken Master and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China.
Master of just about any kung fu style out there and massive opponent of imperialism, the legendary Wong Fei is pretty much there whenever China needs him, and, when one of China's anti-imperialist generals goes off to resist the French Occupation of Vietnam, Wong Fei is set to train a local militia to ensure that the West doesn't overrun the country while the General is away. Wong, with the help of many a militiaman with a strange-translated nickname (like Porky or Buck Teeth), attempts to do so, but this being a movie, something had to go wrong. In this case, his militia men get involved in a street fight with a local mobster, Leung Fu (Biao Yuen), and just happen to fight their way into Wong Fei-hung's diplomatic dinner with the Americans.
Needless to say, this doesn't help Wong's standing with the Westerners at all, and various pressures are placed upon him to bend to the rule of the West. Assassination is attempted, Wong's Aunt-in-Law ends up facing the threat of prostitution, his men are told not to fight yet are continually attacked... pick your reason, Wong Fei-hung just can't stay out of it.
Compound this with the fact that Wong Fei-hung is pitted against yet another Kung Fu Master, Iron Robe Yim (Yee Kwan Yan) in a challenge of honor, and Wong's just not having a good week.
Movies about Wong Fei-hung always tend to be filled with allegorical symbolism, and Once Upon a Time in China is no exception. Wong is the traditional man who wishes for privacy, yet finds, like China did, that sticking to yourself doesn't mean others wont bother you. Iron Robe is a member of the Boxer Rebellion, sure that bullets cannot beat Kung Fu until he finds himself shot with one. Buck Teeth is the Chinese that can live well within Western culture and thus finds himself an outcast in his own.
The film's most interesting character ends up being Iron Robe, who, although he doesn't show up until halfway through the movie, is portrayed as a broken man from the start, making it one of the few times that you actually sympathize with the "bad guy" in a Kung Fu movie.
Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Once Upon a Time in China raises the bar for a genre often thought of as meaningless dribble, showing that a Kung Fu movie can be more than just spectacular fight sequences. Of course Wong Fei-hung doesn't ever disappoint in that aspect, either. One particular fight that takes place on a series of ladders in a warehouse can leave even the most seasoned Kung Fu vet with his jaw dropped... and, if not for the overwhelming political message, why the hell else are you gonna see the movie? Once Upon a Time in China is art, and you can feel free to tell yourself you're seeing it for that, but a few hundred words of explanation later, I only have two words that sum up the entire film: It's cool.
Aka Wong Fei-hung.