Once Upon a Time in Shanghai Review:  Action is the saving grace of the film

Martial artist and longtime supporting player Philip Ng Won-Lung earns a starring role in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. A 1930s martial arts actioner written and produced by the indefatigable Wong Jing. However, the bigger story may be the film’s director. Wong Ching-Po, who was once heralded as some sort of Wong Kar-Wai heir apparent. But ended up disappointing because the product (Jiang Hu, Ah Sou), never matched the hype.

Wong Ching-Po has since re-earned cred with offbeat genre exercises Revenge, A Love Story and Let’s Go!. But Once Upon a Time in Shanghai may be the most interesting test of his talents. To wit: Can Wong Ching-Po make an entertaining commercial film suitable for the Wong Jing brand while also finding time for his self-indulgent postmodern filmmaking style? The answer: Yes, he can! It’s arguable if all the pieces fit. But Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is perfectly watchable for what it is.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Ac Chien) is yet another retelling of the story of Ma Wing-Jing. A real-life Ching Dynasty-era boxer later popularized in books, television and film. Like previous iterations, this version of Ma is a poor immigrant from Shandong. And a righteous individual who fights injustice before eventually working for gangsters.

However, unlike other film adaptations (e.g., Chang Cheh’s Boxer from Shantung, Corey Yuen’s Hero). This Ma Wing-Jing does not succumb to the dark side and never wavers from his innate, gee-whiz purity. Living in a commune presided over by the kindly Master Tie (Sammo Hung, heavily dubbed). Ma meets rising gangster Long Qi (Andy On), whose ruthlessness and powerful martial arts skills have put the four gang leaders of Shanghai’s reigning Axe Fraternity on notice. Ma righteously challenges Long Qi over his criminal activities. And Long Qi is impressed by Ma’s stalwart character and awesome ass-kicking skills. Soon, Long Qi offers to be Ma’s benefactor.

Ma doesn’t wish to be a criminal. But uses his connection with Long Qi to snag honest jobs for himself and his friends. Soon the two become buddies, but hanging around a ruthless gangster is bad news. When the Axe Fraternity allies with Japanese imperialists to take Long Qi down. Ma ultimately must decide whether or not to unleash his true martial arts skills for justice. Or is it revenge? Hell, maybe it’s both. Thematic complexity is hard to discern here. Especially when story and acting take a backseat to excessive stylization.

Par for the Wong Ching-Po course. The movie is shot in an artful manner with extreme color desaturation befitting a desolate tale of downtrodden humanity. Even though the film isn’t about human suffering. It does have lengthy opening titles describing how Shanghai is a dog-eat-dog city where only the strong survive. And one character even uses that rationale to explain Shanghai’s empty streets. Another probable explanation: Having empty streets allows the filmmakers to hire fewer extras and save budget. Genius!

Along with the near black-and-white stylistic look. The film (phim hanh dong vo thuat) offers slow motion shots of smoke and mist sensually curling its way through the frame (Oooh, pretty!). Such artful style informs not only quieter scenes, but also the action – the latter being sort of an odd fit. The martial arts sequences by legendary bros Yuen Woo-Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan are mostly solid. With good choreography complimented by strong impact. Unfortunately, Wong Ching-Po’s style gets in the way. Sometimes upstaging the action with murky framing and video strobing, or using obvious trickery to make multiple shots seem like a seamless sequence.

At the climax, Ma Wing-Jing fights in a transplanted Japanese pagoda. And frequently moves behind objects when fighting. The staging allows for some nifty camera tricks. But it still requires Philip Ng to frequently fight behind large stone pillars. Ng and the Yuens are capable of delivering fast martial arts action using unobscured wide shots. Wouldn’t that be more exciting than mediated MTV-style action?

Philip Ng does fine as a fighter, and convinces with his agile physicality. As an actor, he accomplishes much less, as his take on Ma Wing-Jing lacks charisma. As Long Qi, Andy On is more naturally charismatic. And his frequent sparring matches with Ng are highlights of the film. However, both may miscast. Neither actor fits the 1930s Shanghai setting, and On comes off more like an overgrown jock than a dangerous gangster thanks to his smug demeanor and exaggerated devilish laughter.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai fails at evoking its intended time period. And that’s par for the course for a Wong Jing production. Martial arts nostalgia is strong, however. Besides the action directors, the filmmakers cast martial arts veterans in supporting roles. Yuen Cheung-Yan does double duty as choreographer and also a leader of the Axe Fraternity alongside Fung Hak-On and Chen Kuan-Tai — who actually played Ma Wing-Jing in Boxer From Shantung. Also Sammo Hung (Hong Kim Bao) still has moves, even at his advanced age.

Action is the saving grace of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. Because the rest is unremarkable, from the nationalism-stoking villains to the uninteresting side characters and routine story. One troubling detail is how Ma Wing-Jing refuses to commit crimes but chooses to befriend a gangster. And that choice actually leads to most of the film’s tragic suffering. This inconsistency is never addressed, though who cares when you have gratuitous Wong Jing-isms to entertain you? Long Qi owns a pet tiger, and when asked why.

He manly intones “Because I am also a beast”. Also, Long Qi and Ma Wing-Jing’s friendship is developed in a hilariously homoerotic fashion, culminating in a scene where Long Qi introduces Ma Wing-Jing to hot dogs and wistfully recalls how the original German wieners are “hot and salty”. The subtext of these lines cannot debate. Overall, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is an inconsistent mixture of empty style and solid action. With unintentional entertainment value in spades. Wong Jing and Wong Ching-Po: bros forever.

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