A Tedious Tale: ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ Review

Posted in The Screening Room by - June 15, 2016

Once Upon a Time in China follows Wong Fei-Hung as he protects China against the plundering of French and American invaders in the 19th century. It has everything to spin a good yarn, from the very idea, the period setting, the production value, and hey, martial arts. So why did it fail to engage me in any meaningful way?

There is plenty to appreciate about the film, including its sense of humor and its willingness to be brutal when it has to be. It would not seem like the typical movie to get an R-rating, and although that rating itself may be too extreme for the film, it does come earned. The film does not shy away from the horrors of the invasion. This makes it easy to hate the villains and to get us to root against them. Jet Li is solid in the lead role, as are all the actors. Everyone gets a chance to shine. It is a movie brimming with personality and history, that I think others might find enjoyable.

I try to think about what didn’t work, and there wasn’t anything that the film did wrong in itself. If there were any real flaws, I’d point towards the one-dimensional villains, but even this hardly affects the movie, since it lends itself to a fairy tale tone of sorts and spends its time from the perspective of the heroes. Moreover, I am not sure what it can add to the viewpoint of the antagonists. 

Once Upon a Time in China works just fine, but I was a whole lot less compelled by it than I would have liked. I wanted to enjoy the film more, but I just couldn’t. I think this may be one of those cases where others may find themselves loving it. I believe that this is one review where I’ll do something unusual and recommend it regardless of my opinion. Once Upon a Time in China has many qualities, but it just didn’t do much for me. However, it may work for you. Perhaps I’ll revisit it sometime and find my opinion changed.

Final Say: Watch It

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