For a long time my impression of this Tsui Hark film is that it was good, but too sober and nationalistic for my tastes. Now (actually last year now, but I got distracted from the Tsui Hark project for months) having watched it a third time, I have to admit that it really is one of his strongest films. It’s very well constructed and tightly focused on the theme of what it means to be Chinese in a world in which foreigners are trying to take over the country and many Chinese are trying to immigrate to the US. China is Westernizing in response to the power of the West, symbolized by the gun, and the transformation of the country is hugely disruptive. Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), trying to make a living in the British colony of Hong Kong, represents traditional Chinese values and skills (both medical and martial arts), but even he is wearing a Western suit by the end of the film. Various other characters wrestle with what it means for them to be Chinese, perhaps most effectively in the form of Buck Teeth So (Jacky Cheung), who tries to reclaim his Chinese identity after a time in America, but who stutters when he speaks Chinese while he’s fluent in English. In the end, nationalism provides a common identity to everyone, and it’s a happy ending. But there’s plenty of tension in the resolution, as everything traditional is upended along the way.
Now that Tsui has introduced the hero who will protect China from foreign intervention, he next brings on the character who will cause Wong to question and finally alter his position: Aunt Yee, who has been travelling for some time and has acquired certain Western ways. She dresses like a proper Victorian woman, carries a box camera and has American friends; her Westernization is so effective, in fact, that she’s at first mistaken by one lead characters for a gweilo. Yee tries to tell Wong that China must change, that it must open itself to some Western advances — or be crushed. And although Wong initially dismisses her arguments, he will finally succumb to her logic. (Lisa Morton, The Cinema of Tsui Hark)
Once Upon a Time in China can be seen as an inversion of a work such as Kipling’s Gunga Din. The bad guys are Britons and Americans while Jesuit missionaries barely pass muster in the Gunga Din role as intermediaries between Asians and Westerners. Tsui’s work seems to play back, mischievously, the negative Asian stereotypes of Hollywood movies, answering with negative Western stereotypes of his own. However, Tsui’s sensibility for movement and action over-rides all feelings of malice. The film has many well-choreographed action scenes. The one most people will remember is Wong Fei-hung’s duel with a hot-headed rival kung fu master: in a warehouse, the two men scuttle to the top of long bamboo ladders, dodging each other’s blows as they jump and leap from one ladder to the next. The rival is finally shot down by the Westerner’s guns, and from being his deadly enemy, Wong immediately becomes his comforter in death. In his dying gasp, the rival master utters the films most meaningful line, affirming that kung fu cannot withstand the guns and bullets of the West, underlining Tsui’s theme of China as a country of lost opportunities. (Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema – The Extra Dimensions)
As always in Tsui’s films there are multiple factions, and while the Westerners are definitely the heavies, there are plenty of Chinese also fighting on the wrong side, from the provincial bureaucrats doing the bidding of the British colonizers, to local gangs who either try to kidnap their fellow citizens and sell them as slaves to Americans, or who otherwise exploit the local populace and cause trouble with law-abiding good guys like Wong Fei Hung, to local kung fu masters who use their traditional Chinese kung fu skills for profit rather than honor or defense of China. Corruption is rife, and while it may all stem from the foreigners, it taints even the Chinese. Not all the gweilos are evil either. One Jesuit missionary is even allowed to die a heroic death.
The relationship between Wong and Aunt Yee (whose name is sometimes translated as Aunt 13) is one of the reasons I had a hard time with the film initially, because it’s very coy and precious in a way that I found off-putting, but which I guess shows that the two characters are traditionally virtuous. Lisa Morton, quoted above, is also right that Aunt Yee is a key character in getting Wong to understand that China has to modernize if it wants to gain power to defend itself against the West, and perhaps that message had particular resonance for the Chinese in 1991, especially for those in Hong Kong who were facing absorption by the mainland in the near future. The dangers of assimilation are fraught, but traditional virtues are no protection. The story is played for thrills and laughs, but the message is sober and conflicted.