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January 13, 2015

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

once upon a time in shanghai 1.jpg

E Zhan
Wong Ching-po - 2014
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

It's been a while since I've seen any films by Wong Ching-po. And even if Wong relies on style over substance, I don't mind if only because too many films seen recently lack anything resembling a visual style. I don't know who made the decision to have Once Upon a Time in Shanghai be presented in a digitally created monochrome, with bits of color tinting on a couple of details, but I liked it. And if the influence was more Sin City than, say, Lady from Shanghai, so be it. Call it "kung fu noir".

The film takes place in 1930. And similar to a couple more famous, and epic, films with the "Once Upon a Time" title, Shanghai is presented as a land of promise for some young men from a mainland Chinese village. Ma Yongzhen wears a turquoise bracelet given to him by his mother, a reminder to be careful about using his lethal right fist. Not that wearing the bracelet keeps Yongzhen from getting into any fights, but it does keep him from killing anyone until later in the film.

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Yongzhen learns how Shanghai is controlled by four gang leaders, with half of Shanghai controlled by the upstart Long Qi. There's also business dealings with the Japanese with opium shipped in the guise of tea leaves. After Qi and Yongzhen test each other's martial arts skills, Qi hires Yongzhen to work for him in his nightclub as a waiter. Even though Yongzhen is aware that he can easily follow Qi using his fighting skills, he chooses to live honestly, in modest circumstances. Even though he is a gangster, Qi even has his own code of honor, choosing not to go into business with the Japanese, aware as he is of their plans for eventual takeover.

Wong's film is a loose remake of Boxer from Shantung (1972), with the older film's star Chen Kuan-tai appearing here as one of the older gang leaders. Sammo Hung is the big name here, but his part is really a supporting role, as the chief of the various peasants and laborers who eke out marginal lives, away from the bright lights. As Yongzhen, Philip Ng does possess some resemblance to Bruce Lee, with his lithe body, hair combed over his forehead, and boyish grin that makes him look much younger than his 37 years. Andy On is equal to Ng in martial arts moves, though his forced laugh in his early scenes is grating.

The "Making of" supplement gives a hint of what Once Upon a Time in Shanghai might have looked like in color. Not so coincidentally, another variation on the story, with a bit more effort in recreating the era, is the John Woo produced Blood Brothers, with musical numbers also taking place in the Paradise Club. If past history is any indication, Wong Ching-po's film will hardly be the last version we will see of this story.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 13, 2015 07:30 AM