Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films
Once Upon a Time in China IV
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 fourth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films box set presents Yuen Bun’s Once Upon a Time in China IV in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a 2K restoration performed by Warner Bros., scanned from a 35mm interpositive.
Sadly, the two Warner presentations are the weaker ones of the set. Somewhat surprisingly the restoration efforts haven’t been as thorough here compared to what was done with the previous films. Damage is present and pops up consistently throughout, ranging from faint tram lines to heavier scratches, the latter of which getting particularly bad during the film’s final fight sequence. Splices between cuts are occasionally visible as well. I assume Warner did as basic a remaster and restoration as possible, just doing a simple clean up while leaving the bigger defects intact.
At the very least the digital presentation looks pretty good. Compared to the previous films details aren’t as clear or distinct, the finer ones coming off a little fuzzier, but overall the picture is sharp enough. Colours also look a bit bolder compared to the previous films, though a lot of that just comes down to the film’s visuals: it’s a far more colourful film, delivering bolder reds and blues. Blacks are rich and deep, with shadow detail looking strong. And finally, film grain, which is a little bit thicker in comparison to the previous films (which were all sourced from negatives), is rendered well without coming off noisy. Even the rendering of smoke in several scenes looks clean, macroblocking and banding never seeming to come into play.
When all is said and done it’s simply a soild digital presentation using a so-so "restoration." Still, considering the lack of decent home video releases for the film, I must assume this will still be a godsend to most.
Unlike the previous films this one only comes with a monaural Cantonese soundtrack, presented in lossless single-channel PCM. The mono tracks for the previous films were flat and distorted and I was expecting the same for this, but much to my surprise it ends up being a sharper presentation with a little more fidelity. Effects still manage to sound a bit flat, though, and music can be iffy, but dialogue generally sounds good, with distortion being mostly kept at bay. Heavy damage also isn’t an issue.
Outside of an unrestored trailer the only other feature on here is 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 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 conversation around the art of editing these types of films, along with getting an idea behind how much planning goes into getting every possible shot needed, though sadly it doesn’t make up for the lack of anything else.
The set starts dwindling in quality by this point, this disc delivering only one significant feature and an average video presentation.