Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films
Once Upon a Time in China and America
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 sixth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s Once Upon a Time in America: The Complete Films box set presents the one-off in the series, Sammo Hung’s Once Upon a Time in China and America. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of about 2.39:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
The film is included in the set as a bonus outside of the main series of five, so I wasn’t holding out any high expectations for it. Surprisingly, the end results aren’t too bad. The note around the film's presentation indicates it from a 2K restoration, one that appears to have been financed by Fortune Star, though I couldn’t find much info outside of that. The source isn’t listed but if I had to guess I’d say it’s been sourced, at the very least, from an interpositive. It’s not as sharp as the first three films, though does better with the finer details in comparison to the last two films, with the costumes, sets, and desert landscape delivering a good amount of detail. The film’s colour scheme is a bit limited, mostly to browns and such, but the blues found in the sky manage to pop, and there are some sharp yellows and reds, usually from splashes of blood in the case of the latter. Blacks are also decent, if a bit murky in some interiors.
The restoration work has also been more thorough compared to films IV and V, which were restored by Warner Bros. I’m not sure who performed the restoration here but it doesn’t resemble any of the other restorations found in the set, and has its own hiccups. Grain is present but it’s a little clumpy in places and nowhere near as sharply defined as what’s found in the other films, not even the Warner Bros. ones. Some filtering has probably been applied, though not an excessive degree. Digital artifacts aren’t a real issue, though some minor edge-enhancement and halos pop up here and there. But, rather impressively, the presentation does well with some of the film’s smoky interiors, rendering the smoke with clean gradients, no banding or noise evident.
Altogether nowhere near the strongest presentation in the set, but for what is essentially being included as a bonus film, it exceeded my expectations by a great deal.
Criterion includes three audio tracks for the film: a Mandarin 2.0 PCM stereo soundtrack (the only Mandarin track in the set), a Cantonese 1.0 PCM monaural soundtrack, and then a Cantonese DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. The 5.1 track is the default one.
The mono and stereo tracks are close in terms of quality. The stereo soundtrack can be a little sharper and spreads audio out a bit, but dialogue and some fight effects come off flat. The real advantage to the Mandarin track is that you get to hear Jet Li’s actual voice, and his lip movements match the dialogue.
The 5.1 soundtrack is the sharpest and cleanest, dialogue sounding more dynamic with music spreading out nicely between the front speakers. The sound effects can be a little distracting, though, and the soundtrack features some extra or different effects compared to the other two. There are nature effects, like birds, animals and such, mixed through the surrounds in an effective manner. The more prominent effects usually revolve around flowing water, which sounds to be racing past the viewer. Those water effects are maybe what differ most between the surround and the other two tracks; in the surround track, you can hear water clearly racing by in the background, even though it’s not onscreen, while the other tracks only add the sound once the water is seen onscreen. The effects also show far more range and are mixed louder compared to the other tracks. I ended up liking it well enough, though I'm not sure what fans may think of it.
One somewhat obnoxious factor, which is also true for the set as a whole, are subtitles: they are displayed all of the time, even for English dialogue. The other films in the set do the same thing, but English is pretty sparse in those films so I didn't find it as big a deal, but half of this film is spoken in English, making it more distracting in this case.
At any rate, the soundtracks ultimately all sound fine for what they are, but the 5.1 surround soundtrack is by far the more dynamic, robust one.
Though the film is technically a supplement itself, Criterion includes a few centered around the film. First is a 24-minute making-of documentary from 1997. The documentary 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 a fun little documentary.
Sadly, that’s the only substantial supplement here, the rest of the supplements consisting of a trailer and 5-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage provided to Criterion. That material, sourced from VHS-C and edited in a sort of montage, captures some brief onset moments and quick discussion with members of the crew, including Hung, the film’s director.
The film is an interesting one-off in the series so it’s a shame it wasn’t considered worthwhile to create any other new content around it.
Even though it has been relegated to the status of a bonus film in the set, it receives a decent looking restoration and presentation, which should keep fans happy.