Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films

Once Upon a Time in China

Part of a multi-title set

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Synopsis

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.

Picture 8/10

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China film series receives an all-new Blu-ray box set courtesy of The Criterion Collection. The first dual-layer disc in the six-disc box set presents the first film, Once Upon a Time in China, in its aspect ratio of about 2.39:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is noted to be sourced from the 35mm original camera negative, though I suspect a few quick shots may have come from a later generation source.

The presentations vary throughout the set due to several factors, whether it be resolution, elements, or different restoration houses. Both the first and second film were restored by the same restoration house, Perfect Production in Hong Kong, and do share very strong similarities. In all I was pleasantly surprised by how well this one turned out, though that may be due to me keeping expectations in check and having not seen Eureka’s release; I’ll confess that most of the early DVDs for late 80’s and early 90’s Hong Kong films still prepare me for the worst even though every recent Blu-ray I’ve seen recently has been nothing short of great. This presentation shows a handful of moments that take on a dupier quality, with slightly darker contrast and a rougher looking surface, but most of the presentation is very sharp and very clean. Colours lean warm and can maybe be a little pasty, but there are some terrific splashes of red and orange (the latter showing up a lot in some of the filters used throughout the film), with some bold blues joining in as well. I was happy to see cyan wasn't really a thing here. Black levels are also pretty deep without coming off crushed, and there are still visible details in the shadows.

The restoration work has really cleaned up a lot, only a few minor specs and minor scratches remaining; there's very little damage overall. Motion is smooth, so those action scenes, whether quick or in slo-mo, look incredible. If there's one area that looks a little off it's in how the grain is rendered. It doesn't look entirely natural a lot of the time and may have been managed or filtered a bit, but it doesn't seem to have impacted detail all that much. I'm not entirely sure if it could be something inherent in the original restoration or something to do with the encode. It does look similar to what the second film presents, which I'll mention again was restored by the same restoration house, but it looks different in comparison to how the grain is rendered in films III through V. Whatever the case it's ultimately a minor issue as the final presentation does sharp.

Audio 7/10

Criterion includes two audio soundtracks for the film: a single-channel PCM monaural soundtrack and a 2.0 stereo PCM soundtrack, both in Cantonese. My understanding is that previous releases for this film, including Eureka’s region B Blu-ray, featured stereo mixes that lost some of the film’s sound effects found on the mono track. According to the notes the stereo soundtrack for this release was provided to Criterion by collectors who reconstructed it, and it features all of those previously lost effects. Collectors also provided the original monaural soundtrack.

That’s a great little find and should make fans of the film very happy, especially since the stereo track has been remastered and is the stronger of the two. The mono track is incredibly flat, lacking anything in the way of fidelity, range, or depth. The stereo track nicely spreads effects out and the music and dialogue sound quite a bit sharper. There are still some tinny elements, and range is maybe still not all that wide, but it's the better sounding option.

Edit: I had incorrectly stated th

Extras 7/10

Criterion spreads a number of features over the set’s six discs, though very few of them deal directly with the film on their respective disc, aiming to be more about the series in general. This first disc 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 films, 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, thought 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 (though take note that I’ve already watched all of the films in the set).

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 have to assume it’s from around 1993 or so.

After this is 3-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage that was also sampled in Tsui's interview, focusing around the ladder fight sequences and Li on crutches, followed by a restored trailer for the film pushing Li’s presence before introducing the film’s wide range of characters.

It’s not stacked but on its own the supplements provide a wonderful introduction to the series, Rayns and Tsui’s interviews being the strongest inclusions.

Closing

A nice way to start out the set thanks to a sharp looking presentation and some wonderful introductory supplements.

Part of a multi-title set

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

 
 
Directed by: Yuen Bun, Tsui Hark
Year: 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1993 | 1994
Time: 134 | 112 | 112 | 101 | 101 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1103
Licensors: Fortune Star  |  Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: November 16 2021
MSRP: $124.95
 
Blu-ray
6 Discs | BD-50
2.39:1 ratio
Cantonese 1.0 PCM Mono
Cantonese 2.0 PCM Stereo
Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Alternate stereo Cantonese soundtracks for Once Upon a Time in China and Once Upon a Time in China II, featuring the original theatrical sound effects, and monaural Cantonese soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in China III   Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) in a 2K digital transfer, featuring 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio and monaural Cantonese soundtracks, along with a stereo Mandarin track with the voice of actor Jet Li   New interviews with director Tsui Hark, Film Workshop cofounder Nansun Shi, editor Marco Mak, and critic Tony Rayns   Excerpts from audio interviews with Jet Li conducted in 2004 and ’05   Deleted scenes from Once Upon a Time in China III   Documentary from 2004 about the real-life martial-arts hero Wong Fei-hung   From Spikes to Spindles, a 1976 documentary about New York City’s Chinatown featuring uncredited work by Tsui   Excerpts from a 2019 master class given by martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-ping   Archival interview with director Tsui Hark   Archival interview with actor John Wakefield   Archival interview with Donnie Yen   Archival interview with actor Yen Shi-kwan   Behind-the-scenes footage for Once Upon a Time in China and Once Upon a Time in China and America   Making-of program from 1997 on Once Upon a Time in China and America   Theatrical trailer for Once Upon a Time in China   Theatrical trailer for Once Upon a Time in China II   Theatrical trailer for Once Upon a Time in China III   Theatrical trailer for Once Upon a Time in China VI   Theatrical trailer for Once Upon a Time in China V   Trailers for Once Upon a Time in China and America   An essay on the films by critic Maggie Lee and an essay on the cinematic depictions of Wong by novelist Grady Hendrix