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Martial-arts master Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is recruited to help defend his home province against rapacious, human-trafficking American imperialists, in director Tsui Hark's stunning reinvention of the classic period kung-fu film.
Forty-two years after Wong Fei-hung was first immortalized on screen in Wong Fei-hung: The Whip That Smacks the Candle (screening on June 10), director Tsui Hark teamed with star Jet Li to create arguably the most famous and popular big-screen iteration of the legendary martial artist, which spawned five sequels in all. Once Upon a Time in China casts Wong in his frequent role as defender of Chinese culture, standing tall against the physical plundering of the country by Europeans and Americans and symbolizing the strength and persistence of local traditions against the creeping pervasiveness of Western technology and ideas. (In this, the films also speak to another, far more imminent worry: the impending 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Mainland.) Yet Tsui, with his typical brio and mix-and-match approach to genre, is able to fuse this pro-China patriotism with a template that very clearly evokes the classic American western, and revitalizes the period martial-arts film some of the most spectacular fight sequences ever put on screen, notably the concluding ladder battle in Part I and a rare onscreen clash between Li and his fellow martial-arts icon Donnie Yen in Part II.
Once Upon a Time in China and Once Upon a Time in China II screen together as a double bill.