Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films
One of the pinnacles of Hong Kong cinema’s 1990s golden age, the Once Upon a Time in China series set a new standard for martial-arts spectacle and launched action star Jet Li to international fame. It brings to vivid life the colorful world of China in the late nineteenth century, an era of immense cultural and technological change, as Western imperialism clashed with tradition and public order was upended by the threats of foreign espionage and rising nationalism. Against this turbulent backdrop, one man—the real-life martial-arts master, physician, and folk hero Wong Fei-hung—emerges as a noble protector of Chinese values as the country hurtles toward modernity. Conceived by Hong Kong New Wave leader Tsui Hark, this epic cycle is not only a dazzling showcase for some of the most astonishing action set pieces ever committed to film but also a rousing celebration of Chinese identity, history, and culture.
For the first time in North America all of the Once Upon a Time in China films have been gathered together in Criterion’s box set Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films. The six-disc set presents all five of the films on their own individual dual-layer discs, each presented in the aspect ratio of around 2.39:1. All five have also received 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes. The sixth dual-layer disc presents the bonus film, Once Upon a Time in China and America.
The films vary in quality due to source materials, the resolutions of the scans and restorations, and who is doing the restoration, but on the whole I think they’ve all turned out remarkably well. Films I and II are primarily sourced from the 35mm original camera negative (though I suspect the first film has some inserts from other sources) and scanned in 4K, with the restoration work having been completed by Perfect Production in Hong Kong. Both have a pastier colour palette in comparison to the other films, but the presentations for both are very sharp and very clean. The restoration work has managed to remove most of the damage, and they both have a film-like texture to them, though it does look like grain has been filtered a little bit, as the grain has a slightly different look compared to the other three films.
The third film was restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata in 4K (also from the negative) and kind of has the typical Ritrovata look. A lot of their restorations can have this yellow-ish/green-ish tint, though Criterion has been adjusting that look a little bit with some (though not all) of their releases recently. They’ve done that here for the most part, the colours looking warmer but not overly yellow or green, whites still looking white and blues looking blue instead of cyan. Interestingly, there are a few sequences that still show that green hue, and there’s even a moment where one shot during the horse stampede has a “normal” hue, only to cut away and then back to a similar shot with a green hue (I included before-and-after captures in the screen grab gallery below).
Still, the colours look mostly good, and the black levels don’t appear to have been impacted. As usual with Ritrovata's work, though, the restoration has been incredibly thorough and they keep grain intact. Criterion’s encode also handles it well and the image retains a nice, sharp film texture.
Films VI and V were restored by Warner Bros., sourced from the 35mm interpositives and scanned in 2K. Though these ones have also turned out pretty good, they are lacking a little bit when compared to the first three films. These films don’t come off as sharp, the finer details getting lost at times, and this could just come down to the source materials. The scans themselves are very good, capturing the grain well enough, even if that grain is not as sharp looking as what the previous presentations offered.
It also looks as though Warners has done the bare minimum in terms of restoration work, probably just running the films through a default automated process to at least stabilize the image and clean up dirt and marks. The heavier damage, which includes large scratches and even splices at the top of the frame, have been left mostly intact. The fifth one comes out looking better, most of the flaws remaining invisible, but the fourth film shows a lot of damage, particularly large scratches, with it getting particularly bad during the film’s final fight scene.
Even if they’re not perfect and could still use some work, they’ll more than likely be a godsend to fans as this marks the first time the films have been made available in North America on disc. They have issues, but at the very least the digital presentations are excellent, colours and black levels looking particularly strong themselves.
In all, the presentations are very strong, and I’d have a hard time imagining fans being upset with any of it. Despite varying issues throughout, they’re all very sharp, have a nice film look, and are smooth in motion, the latter being especially important for the action sequences.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991): 8/10 Once Upon a Time in China II (1992): 8/10 Once Upon a Time in China III (1993): 8/10 Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993): 7/10 Once Upon a Time in China V (1994): 7/10
All five films come with single-channel PCM Cantonese monaural soundtracks while films I, II, and III all come with optional 2-channel PCM Cantonese stereo soundtracks. Films IV and V sound fine, though are ultimately nothing special. The tracks show some range in the fight scenes and don’t present heavy distortion, but they’re still flat in the end.
The mono tracks for the other three films aren’t that great, sounding heavily distorted and showing nothing in the way of depth or range. The stereo tracks on all three films sound far better, coming off a bit sharper with better fidelity, though still not perfect. Sound effects are also nicely spread out.
One big bonus here is that Criterion is using reconstructed stereo tracks for the first two films. As I understand it, previous releases for the film featured stereo soundtracks that were missing some of the sound effects found on the mono ones. That has been corrected here, probably making the stereo tracks the ones to go with this time around.
(As a note, the English subtitles are always on, even when characters are speaking in English. This is forgiveable since English is pretty sparse throughout most of the films, it becomes a bit more obnoxious during Once Upon a Time in China and America, where about half the dialogue is in English.)
Once Upon a Time in China (1991): 7/10 Once Upon a Time in China II (1992): 7/10 Once Upon a Time in China III (1993): 7/10 Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993): 6/10 Once Upon a Time in China V (1994): 6/10
Criterion packs on a number of features across the set’s six discs, though they dwindle out as you go through each disc. Each disc presents an individual film (the sixth presenting the bonus film Once Upon a Time in China and America) alongside its original trailer, though the ones for the first three films have been ”restored” while the last two come from standard-definition footage. Somewhat disappointingly the features rarely get into the individual films themselves, instead focusing on the series as a whole.
This first disc, presenting the first film, starts things off with a new interview with director/producer/writer Tsui Hark, who provides a great little introduction to the set. He talks about the original Wong Fei-hung series of films that ran for decades and how he grew the desire to make his own versions, born out of childhood fantasy and the upcoming handover of Hong Kong to China. He goes to explain the factors that went into updating the material for the “now” generation while also making sure to not suggest these films should replace the previous films, which featured actor Kwan Tak-hing in just about all of them. The director also talks about the casting of Li and issues that creeped up during production of the first film (like Li breaking his foot), while also explaining the reasoning behind a handful of memorable sequences in the films, like using shadows to express two characters’ emotions. It’s only 16-minutes but it’s an incredibly satisfying interview with the director.
6 minutes’ worth of audio excerpts from two interviews with Jet Li conducted in late 2004 and early 2005 feature the martial arts star talking about his upbringing, his Buddhist faith, and how movies help him promote martial arts. It’s a good interview for its length, though it’s assembled a bit obnoxiously: it’s presented as an essay, the audio delivered over photos of Li from his youth through some of his film work, all of which is fine, but the subtitles are animated over the feature in a confounding manner. Li does speak excellent English so I have to assume the quality of the audio, which is admittedly shoddy, probably played into the subtitles being added, but I think I would have preferred if the subtitles were delivered simply. Bonus points to Criterion for at least trying to make the delivery less stale.
Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns next shows up to talk about the series of films for 30-minutes, first explaining the state of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema in the early 80’s, putting a special focus on Tsui and his output, along with the comeback of Martial Arts films thanks to Bruce Lee’s international success. Rayns clearly contextualizes the films in how they were addressing an anxiety that was being felt in Hong Kong with the upcoming handover to China before talking about the casting (and recasting) through the films. He also defends the fourth and fifth films, which he thinks close the arc Tsui had set up. As usual it’s a fabulous contribution from the scholar and it impresses me how, through the dozens and dozens of interviews I’ve seen featuring him, the guy rarely repeats himself, always giving me something new. I’ll also note I don’t think there were any severe spoilers to the films so it’s probably safe to watch before the other films.
There is then a short 8-minute archival interview with actor Yen Shi-kwan talking about his career and the many changes he has seen in the Hong Kong film industry through the years since first working for Shaw Bros. He also shares some fun insights into what it means to play a villain as he did in Once Upon a Time in China. The interview appears to be sourced from video tape and is undated, but since he mentions Iron Monkey, I must assume it’s from around 1993 or so.
Finally, the disc features 3-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage, which was also sampled in Tsui's interview. The footage focuses on the ladder fight sequences and presents footage of Li on crutches after injuring himself.
The second disc, which houses the second film, starts with a 16-minute interview featuring Donnie Yen, recorded in 2012. Here Yen talks about his role, both in terms of his character and the work that went into the fight scenes, sharing some stories from the set, including one around a severe injury he received while filming, Tsui looking to get him back quickly. He also shares his contributions around some of the planning that went into his big fight with Li, including how he worked the deadly cloth in there.
The disc also features a 48-minute 2004 documentary on the inspiration for the films in this series (and many past films), entitles The Legend of Wong Fei-hung. It appears to have been made as some sort of promotion around the films, maybe some DVD release around the time (it also looks to have been broken up into pieces on previous releases for the series), but through various interviews we get a half-decent portrait of the man held back only by what I have to guess are the limited materials around him (Rayns talks a little about this in his interview found on the previous disc). The stories that are shared have an exaggerated feel to them, more to build a legend, but they’re fun and they touch on his reputation in the community, his martial arts and Lion dancing skills (the latter playing into plot points in the next two films), and the legacy he left behind. The documentary also covers some of his disciples, seeming to focus more on the ones depicted in the films. It's hard to discern what stories around him are entirely true, but the feature should still prove useful to viewers unfamiliar with the man and looking for some more context behind the films.
The disc also features another documentary, a 1976 film directed by Christine Choy called From Spikes to Spindles, running 48-minutes and featuring uncredited work by Tsui Hark. The documentary focuses on issues the Chinese community in New York face around discrimination and targeted violence, including police brutality; the film opens immediately covering an incident involving the police beating of a local man named Peter Yaw. Through footage of demonstrations, community meetings, and a number of on-the-street type interviews it captures the tensions being felt.
Another good inclusion is 42-minutes’ worth of excerpts from a Q&A/master class session featuring fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, recorded in 2019 at the New York Asian Film Festival. Through a translator Yuen talks about his work with Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Jet Li on their respective films and fight sequences, explaining along the way how he developed his style. This then leads to conversations around a few films, including Drunken Master and the first two Once Upon a Time in China films. It’s an insightful look into the art behind his work along with insights into how he’s had to adapt as audience interest and expectations changed through the years.
Disc three, presenting the third film, is where things start to get a bit sparse. Criterion digs up a 1994 interview featuring Tsui Hark, the director talking about the third film and his intentions behind bringing the character of Wong Fei-hung back to the screen with the series. He also talks a bit about his acting career, or, as he calls it, his “stand in” career since he feels that’s all he was really doing, at least before getting some bigger roles. He also talks about the Hong Kong film industry and how he has studied film through the years. It appears to have been reedited for a DVD release (I’m guessing from around 2012 since the format matches the interview that follows this) but it expands on comments Tsui made in his new interview found on the first disc. It runs 23-minutes.
The next interview is with actor John Wakefield, recorded in 2012 and running under 11-minutes. Wakefield first explains how he moved to Hong Kong and started getting acting work on television, all before being cast in the third China film. He gives a decent idea on what it is like for an English-speaking actor in Hong Kong, though it sounds as though he can get work a bit easier than most because he can also speak Cantonese. Amusingly, even though he could speak Cantonese, which is what Tsui and crew wanted when casting his Russian character, they ended up dubbing over him anyways, and the dialogue didn’t match the dialogue he actually spoke while filming. It's a fun interview, with Wakefield also sharing some other details around the production.
Criterion then includes 21-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes. The scenes are an interesting set since it looks like most of the cuts were just short trims to tighten up several scenes, including many of the Lion Dance sequences and some of the fight sequences. There is also a funny bit involving Foon having to copy The Way of the Filial Piety, which doesn't work out too well for him.
The fourth disc, featuring the fourth film, only has one significant feature: a 12-minute interview with editor Marko Mak Chi-sin. Mak’s discussion focuses around properly cutting the fight scenes and working with director Tsui Hark on getting the material needed during filming. He explains the initial difficulty in finding the proper way to edit the very fast and elaborate fights scenes so that they flowed properly for an audience, eventually coming up with a technique he calls “double action,” which involves repeating certain actions for a few frames when cutting to another shot or angle. For example, the impact of a foot hitting someone’s chest is quickly repeated after a cut, not only making the action flow smoother but also allowing the audience to follow along better. It’s a great discussion around the art of editing a fight scene.
Disc five, presenting the fifth film, also only features one feature outside of the trailer: a new interview featuring Film Workshop cofounder, Nansun Shi. Sadly, it only runs 10-minutes in length, but she makes the short runtime matter, covering her work with Cinema City before starting Film Workshop with Tsui Hark, with the intent of taking Hong Kong filmmaking in a different direction. It sounds like a big inspiration for her was going to Cannes in the early 80’s and seeing all of these technically polished and tightly edited films dealing with a wide variety of subjects, something she never saw in Hong Kong. She then explains here (aided by onscreen text) the goals that were set out, making films that would have some sort of impact, but with the hope of balancing art and commerce, because they clearly needed to stay in business, too. I almost wish there was more about the company and its output here, maybe even a documentary, but Nansun still offers a concise yet detailed overview of it. Humourously, there are several pictures scattered throughout the interview that feature Nansun with co-workers and filmmakers with everyone smiling or laughing… except for Tsui, who always looks dead serious, even when he’s making a fun pose.
Disc six then features the bonus film Once Upon a Time in China and America, directed by Sammo Hung. The film—which brought Jet Li back to the role of Wong after the role was recast with Vincent Zhao for the fourth and fifth films—isn’t considered an official entry in the series, or at least that’s the idea I get from fans, but I can see why if that is the case. Placing Wong and 13th Aunt (again played by Rosamund Kwan) in the American west of the late 1800’s, the film has a very different feel than the previous five, with the character of Wong coming off a little bit, I don’t know, sillier I guess you could say.
Aspects of the film probably haven’t aged very well, and not just in its depiction of native Americans, which is clearly based off American films (though to the film’s credit it offers one character a moment to lament losing his home, with the hope of getting it back one day), but also probably in what seems to be one of the film’s messages, where Wong proclaims that Chinese immigrants must make sure to properly represent their people in the best possible light, pretty much at all times.
The film’s narrative structure is also a bit all over the place, feeling like a couple of different films. Not that the other films in series had story structure as their top concern, the plots usually feeling like ways of getting from one action scene to another, but this one doesn’t really find any sort of focus until about an hour in. The first hour finds Wong suffering memory loss after an accident and a tribe sort of adopting him while 13th Aunt and his disciples Clubfoot and Bucktooth look for him. This doesn’t really go anywhere and then suddenly it’s all resolved.
It's in the last 40-minutes where the film finally starts to kick in to gear, and I will admit the last 40-minutes are pretty fun. An antagonist finally comes to the forefront in the form of a gunslinger who happens to be of Chinese descent, replacing the person who first appeared to be the film’s villain, a racist mayor that comes in and out of the story and who sets off the events in the last act of the film. The fight scenes are pretty good and they’re filmed nicely, thought there’s admittedly nothing comparable to some of the series’ best fights. The fights do manage to incorporate guns into them rather well, but even that was still better done in the fifth film.
It’s probably better than the fourth film (the one I really wasn’t all that fond of) but it is kind of forgettable despite the premise. Still, I’m happy Criterion has included it, and in such a nice presentation as well, sourced from a 2K restoration with a sharp sounding DTS-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack. The film also includes a monaural Cantonese track and a stereo Mandarin track, the latter of which features Jet Li's actual voice.
The disc also features a few supplements around the film, which includes a 24-minute making-of documentary, a newly created 5-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage provided to Criterion on VHS-C video tape, and then the film’s trailer. The documentary, from 1997, is typical of the period and I’m sure it’s appeared on other releases for the film, but it’s still interesting to watch. Most of the footage is filmed around the film’s climax and we get to see scenes being set-up and get interviews from the Hong Kong and American crew members, who were working well together despite some language barriers. It’s not much but it ends up being a fun little inclusion.
The set also comes with a 44-page booklet. There's a short piece about the real Wong Fei-hung and his portrayals onscreen through the years, written by Grady Hendrix, which manages to also touch on the actual man in a more grounded way than the documentary found on disc 2. Maggie Lee also provides an essay around the series and its importance as martial arts films. There is more of a focus on the first three films, but the fourth and and fifth one get a tiny bit of coverage as well (Once Upon a Time in China and America pretty much only gets a mention).
It's still disappointing that there is next-to-no focus on the individual films, particularly the fourth and fifth films (and even the sixth), which I get the feeling are treated as outsiders of the series. Also, more around the original series of films starring Kwan Tak-hing would have seemed like a no-brainer, along with details around a television series. As it stands, though, Criterion has put together some decent material, most of it worth the effort of going through.
Criterion has put together a wonderful set that includes all of the films together for the first time in North America. Though the presentations do vary in quality they look strong overall, and the supplements (including the bonus sixth film) will keep fans busy.