Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films
Once Upon a Time in China II
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.
The second disc in Criterion’s box set Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films presents, as one would expect, the second film in the series, Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc, the 1080p/24hz high-definition encode sourced from a 4K restoration. The 35mm original camera negative was the source for the restoration.
This film was restored by the same people behind the first film, Perfect Production in Hong Kong, and the end results for this film look pretty close to how that previous effort came out. Overall the image is sharp and clear, doing an impressive job in rendering the film’s textures and details. Colours again have a slightly pasty look to them, leaning a bit warmer as well, but there are some very nice pops of red and blue throughout. Whites also look more like a warm white, not a heavy yellow, and those blues look blue, not cyan. Black levels are also pretty deep without crushing out detail, and the textures in the shadows are still rendered cleanly.
Restoration work has cleaned up things impressively, only a handful of small, noticeable marks remaining. The digital encode seems okay, though the grain does have an odd texture at times, similar to the first film’s presentation. I was going to put it down to encode initially but it looks different from how grain is rendered in the next three films, so I suspect that maybe there was filtering or some other form of management done during the original restoration or master creation. It’s ultimately a minor concern, though, as it doesn’t impact detail all that much, and there’s still a nice film look about the end results onscreen.
Outside of that, motion is again clean and smooth, the quick action scenes looking sharp. In all I’m sure fans will be more than pleased.
As with the previous film Criterion includes two audio tracks, a 1.0 PCM monaural soundtrack and a remastered 2.0 PCM stereo soundtrack. Apparently previous releases of the film included a stereo soundtrack missing a number of sound effects, but collectors have provided Criterion with a corrected soundtrack that reincorporates those effects, taken from the mono track. Collectors apparently supplied Criterion with the original mono soundtrack as well.
Again, like the previous title, the stereo soundtrack is the better sounding one, delivering far more depth and range. Music and dialogue feature excellent fidelity and effects move appropriately between the speakers. The mono soundtrack is very flat and one-note; there’s no depth or much of anything to it. At the very least, neither soundtrack features any glaring issues.
Supplements are spread across the discs in the set, with most related to the series overall. Outside of the second film’s trailer the only supplement on this disc that could be considered specific to the second film is a 16-minute interview with 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 and shares 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), 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, 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 (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.
Sadly, there’s nothing here along the lines of Rayns’ and Tsui’s contributions found on the previous disc, but the two documentaries and Yuen’s interview are excellent additions to the set.
The second disc delivers another nice-looking presentation with an interesting mix of supplements, this time focussing more on the fights within the series and the real-life Wong.