Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.
Set at some point in the late 19th Century, we find Wong Fei-hung’s city of Foshan (on the Pearl River Delta, just northwest of Hong Kong) in turmoil. The crumbling Manchurian government is both corrupt and weak and at the mercy of Western powers, represented here by a cadre of Americans (wearing Union blue but speaking in the Southern accents Tsui must have heard as a student in Texas). The Americans are recruiting Chinese laborers with dreams of gold, poor men who quickly learn that they’ve unwittingly sold themselves into slavery, one escaped man’s account of the passage to and life in America eerily reminiscent of the narratives of another people sold into bondage in the States. Wong is the leader of the city’s militia, and also a renowned doctor. His father, Wong Kei-ying, according to tradition a famous anti-Manchu freedom fighter, is notably absent from the story, and Wong gets along well with the local military commander, but there’s an underlying layer of tension: the Mandarins don’t trust Wong, but it isn’t because of his status as a Han hero, or Ming Dynasty die-hard, as in earlier versions of his story, but rather because of his incorruptibility.
The upstanding morality that makes Wong a hero to his disciples and a threat to the villains sets him at odds with certain members of his circle, most notably his 13th Aunt, played by Rosamund Kwan (she’s roughly the same age as Wong, and is the daughter of his great uncle (the number specifies that she is Wong’s 13th oldest aunt), technically she’s no blood relation – the details aren’t specified). She’s returned from two years abroad and now speaks English, wears Western dresses and lugs around a giant camera. She and Wong are obviously in love, but neither manages to find the right time to tell the other: it’s the kind of awkward, chaste romance that best fits Jet Li’s weird non-sexual charisma. The other member of Wong’s circle to show a Western influence is “Buck-Toothed So”, played by Jacky Cheung, a Chinese-American who has come to Foshan to study medicine under Master Wong. So stutters terribly when he tries to speak Chinese, and can barely read the language, but speaks English with a loquacious fluency. In humanizing and undermining a pernicious racist caricature, Cheung’s performance recalls the Ford characters played by Stepin Fetchit in the Judge Priest movies.
Rounding out the ensemble are Lam Sai-wing (“Porky Wing”), Wong’s eldest student, a fiery pig butcher (based on a real person: Lam was the man who trained Lau Kar-leung’s father in kung fu), and Leung Foon, played by a vastly overqualified Yuen Biao. Leung works for the local theatre, and has dreams of making it big on stage, but gets into trouble with a local gang that demands protection money. He flees through the town and he and Porky end up fighting the gang together, destroying much of the town and ultimately bursting into the Western hotel where Wong is having lunch with the Manchu commander and the evil Yankees. This gets the militia arrested, makes Wong a target for the authorities, the Americans, and the gang, which resorts to increasingly devious and violent means to revenge themselves on him.
The gang’s various attacks on Wong bring in two bystanders. The first is an elderly white Jesuit who is the only man in town willing to support Wong in his efforts to arrest the gang leader: no one else, Chinese or otherwise, is brave enough to bear witness. Later, the Jesuit will sacrifice himself to save Wong’s life, leaping in front of a bullet aimed at the hero’s back. The other is a down on his luck martial arts master named “Iron-Vest Yim”, reduced to performing for spare change on the streets, poverty ultimately twists his moral code to the point that he’s willing to ally himself with the gang and kill Wong in order to earn the money to start his own school, the kind of “a little bad now for a lot of good later” rationale that many of my friends recited to themselves when they entered law school.
So here we have the array of contradictory forces tearing China apart in the late 19th century: forces of modernization and tradition, Chinese and Western, forming the background for a heroic myth, the story of a hero brave enough to stand up for righteousness, even at the cost of his personal happiness. It’s the scope and context of Tsui’s film that sets it apart from other martial arts hero narratives, just as the encapsulation of an entire society in a rolling box sets Stagecoach apart from the oaters that came before it. Far from the mischievous or petulant youth of the previous 15 years of Wong Fei-hung films, like Lau Kar-leung’s Challenge of the Masters or Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, or the Confucian patriarch Kwan Tak-hing played in dozens of serials in the 1950s and 60s (the theme song of which is an essential part of all Wong films, of course Miramax excised it from their release of Iron Monkey), Jet Li’s Wong is both youthful and wise, a serious young man with a code, not at all the free-drinking goofball of the Fong Sai-yuk or Swordsman movies. Befitting the ideal, he always seeks to avoid conflict and violence, but when trouble breaks out, he carries himself with supreme confidence: he’s the greatest fighter in any room and he knows it, but he takes no joy in it, and similarly no anger. When breaking up the fight in the banquet, using Kwan’s trademark umbrella to capture the gang leader, Wong holds back, he fights to contain, not to kill. And when the Americans turn their guns on an audience of innocents during a gang attack at the theatre, Li for the first time makes Wong truly his own: departing from the Hung Gar kung fu style the historical Wong popularized throughout Southern China and incorporating elements of his own Northern Chinese wushu forms (to simplify extremely: more kicking, less punching).
The break in authenticity is expedient of course, though it would drive Lau Kar-leung nuts (reportedly the source of conflict between Lau and Jackie Chan on Drunken Master II was Chan’s improvisations on the traditional style) along the lines of the wire-fu Tsui and Ching Siu-tung had been perfecting for years, but it’s also idealistic: presenting Wong as a symbol not just of Southern China, but as a hero for the nation as a whole. Similarly, in allowing Western influences into his circle, going so far as to end the film wearing a Western suit and hat, Tsui’s Wong reconfigures the conflicts of imperialism, turning a political attack against Western (specifically American) racism and aggression into a moral tale of justice and righteousness, where color and national origin are deemed irrelevant in favor of the content of one’s character. That this is coded as a specifically mythical vision, with its fairy tale title and stirring theme song, opening an closing with a horde of men performing in unison on a beach at sunset, along with our knowledge of the way history would in fact play out (and which we’ll see over the next several films in the series), gives the film an air of tragedy. But the dream of integration remains a potent one.