Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films

Once Upon a Time in China III

Part of a multi-title set

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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

Disc three in Criterion’s box set Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films presents the third film, Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China III, on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.

Unlike the previous two films this one has been restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, and there are some clear differences in look. Grain looks a bit better here, the texture coming off a little finer and sharper, less filtered and managed. There is some slight noise at times, but nothing too bad, and I didn’t notice any severe instances around macroblocking or banding. Even the film’s smoky shots come out looking great thanks to some clean gradients.

Colours are also a bit stronger in comparison to the first two films, both of which had slightly pastier looks, but reds, greens, oranges, and blues really pop here. The closing, which features a lot of reds, is especially vibrant. Whites look nice, actually looking white (if a warmer white) and black levels are rich and deep, no murkiness or crushing present.

Considering this was done by Ritrovata I was expecting there to be some sort of yellow/green tint, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case. Well, most of the time at least. Oddly, there are times where that green tint sneaks in there, and it’s hard to say if it’s intentional. However, there are a couple of odd times where it feels like the tint comes and goes in the middle of a scene. For example, during the horse stampede midway through the film, there is a shot of the horses running out, colours looking to be balanced nicely, before cutting to another quick shot and then back to that shot of the horses. When the film returns to that same shot it suddenly has that green tint, only to disappear again when we cut away (a couple of screen grabs showing a before-and-after are included in the gallery below). In all fairness there could be a few reasons for this, and it could be intentional or related to source elements, but it happens a few times and it does stick out.

Past that, the restoration work has cleaned up things wonderfully, this film probably being the best looking of all the films in the set, at least in that regard, and I thought the colours looked mostly great. Anther pleasant surprise.

Audio 7/10

Again, Criterion includes two audio tracks, a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack and a PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack, the latter apparently being representative of the original theatrical soundtrack. As with the other films the stereo track sounds the sharpest and cleanest. Range is fairly wide and music sounds decent, though sound effects and dialogue can still come off bit flat.

That’s still better than the mono audio, though, which again is incredibly flat, lacking fidelity and range. It’s also a little distorted, but this is maybe just par for the course. At the very least, there is no severe damage.

Extras 5/10

Supplements start to dwindle a bit as we make our way through the set, this disc only featuring a few supplements. They end up being more specific to the film at least.

First, there’s a 1994 interview with director Tsui Hark, who talks about the third film and then 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. 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 and a recreation of the film’s trailer using the restored footage. The deleted scenes are an interesting set since it looks like most of the cuts were just short trims to tighten up a number of 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 material is all good, with the deleted scenes being of particular interest if just to see how Tsui tightened up the film, but the selection still feels slim.


Probably features the strongest looking presentation in the set.

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
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