Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is a doctor who returns home to Mainland China at a time when the nation has been divided up for rule amongst various other nations. While he is onboard his ship, they are conducting a ceremony which features a dragon dance and a lot of firecrackers, but when the British across the way hear that on their vessel, they think someone is shootng at them and open fire in retaliation. Their bullets hit the head dancer, yet to ensure the rites continue Wong leaps up and grabs the headdress and completes the moves. His Captain is impressed, and gives him a fan as a souvenir - and a reminder...
Jet Li had been a star in China since he was a kid thanks to his champion martial arts prowess, but for movies had not really found the right vehicle until Wong Fei-hung came along. Not only did that consolidate his profile as a film star, but it brought him to the attention of the West, starting with a cult reputation there as his Once Upon a Time in China and Fong Sai-Yuk efforts were exported around the world, and building to the acclaim and international success that he enjoyed thereafter. It's easy to see his appeal, in this especially, as he projected an inner calm and capability that contrasted with the broader acting of his fellow cast members - not to mention how good he was in those action sequences.
His director here was Tsui Hark, already a major player in the Hong Kong movie scene and looking to revive a character he had appreciated in his youth, as there had been a load of Wong Fei-hung movies before this one, the character being based on a popular folk hero known to many Chinese. With that built in audience guaranteed, this was a huge hit in its native land, but when it did make it to other countries, there were grumblings about its perceived patriotism; actually, not so much patriotism but outright racism towards anyone not Chinese. This was mainly down to those outsiders not being used to seeing their Imperialist past rendering the characters representing their lands as the bad guys.
But Hark was not out to shoot down any other invaders so much as build up his own countrymen, and there were undoubtedly other people in this than the baddies who committed decent acts for the Chinese heroes, just as there were Chinese villains prepared to, say, sell their women into sex slavery to the Americans; if anything this was far more even-handed and contemplative about the issues it brought up than it was conservative or worse, reactionary. Take Li's love interest, Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), who is sort of related to him but not by blood she is keen to point out: she has been educated in Britain and has adopted many British mannerisms, most obviously in the manner of dress, and she doesn't come across as some poor brainwashed soul.
If anything, Yee represented the need to adapt to the international arena, as while she embraced other cultures, she didn't allow them to swamp her origins, merely using them to assist progress back home. If this makes the film sound as if it's all politics, then take heart as the action was plentiful and imaginative, with Li rising to the occasion frequently - the near-climactic fight on the ladders was rightfully praised as a classic. But Li was not the only star in this, as Yuen Biao showed up as his co-lead Fu Leung, although understandably it's possible to forget he was ever in it as Jet tended to dominate the story. He was in this though, and relegated somewhat to the comic relief that quite a few of the actors traded in here, but when he had his chance to shine you could see it was not wise to underestimate him. Yet Once Upon a Time in China being the movie that broke a new star around the globe, and being as rich with themes and energy as it was, it was the reason Jet Li became the celebrity he is. Music by Romeo Díaz and James Wong.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.