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Once Upon a Time in Shanghai
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by Jay Seaver

"Some much-appreciated fresh blood in the kung fu genre."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Is Philip Ng the next big martial-arts action star to come out of China? It seems like we've been waiting for the generation that comes after Jet Li and Donnie Yen to show up for a while, and while there are certainly stars who can fight a little, guys who can just flat-out throw down are few and far between. In "Once Upon a Time in Shanghai", Ng has a great, stylish showcase, a great time for those looking for some old-school action.

Shanghai, 1930. Ma Yongzhen (Ng) arrives on a boat with two others from his village/family, looking to make some honest money, but the gangs rule the city, with Long Qi (Andy On) making inroads on the Axe Federation. Though Ma initially finds honest work, he takes action when gangsters invade the poor neighborhood where he lives. He fights Long to a draw, but that just makes the gangster fond of the country bumpkin, enough to offer him a job as a waiter at the Paradise Club. However, Long isn't the only gang in town, and the three remaining Axes are not above collaborating with the Japanese.

The movie opens with action, as Ma takes exception to some thieves trying to steal a little girl's baked potato, and makes them regret it. And while Ma makes an earnest effort to avoid fighting for much of the film - he wears a jade bracelet on his wrist as a reminder that his right arm is so powerful that he might accidentally kill someone brawling - it's inevitable, and when things finally do explode, it's fantastic - the legendary Yuen Woo-ping is action director, with Yuen Cheung-yan choreographing, and there's some impressive action, not necessarily acrobatic, but hard-hitting and shot so that you can see that Ng, at least, can really move, with Andy On no slouch either (Sammo Hung is still looking pretty good in a supporting role, too). Ng and On have a great fight in the center and there's a massive gauntlet to be passed in the finale. And while it's fun to just sit back and watch the actors and stuntpeople trade blows, it's even more fun to watch closely and see that the Yuens are actually impressively careful to not have Ng hit with his right fist unless he really means business; even in the midst of a frantic volley, he'll block or throw an elbow with that arm, but no ordinary punches.

Ma's supremely effective fist is not the only way the film goes out of its way to be larger-than-life and stylish. Director Wong Ching-po and cinematographer Jimmy Wong Kam-shing opt to dial the color down so that the movie is almost black and white, reminiscent of Warner Brothers gangster films, although Philip Ng is given a look that recalls the early-1970s Shaw Brothers heyday. Ma's jade bracelet is actually only a strong, bright green in one scene, and only the stage pops inside the Paradise Club. It's still very modern-feeling, with a fair amount of slow motion and some CGI assists beyond wire removal, but it doesn't look generic.

It's established Philip Ng can fight; can he also act? Well, he's good enough for this sort of movie, with a big smile and a kind of dopey charm that's different enough from his heavy role in From Vegas to Macau that he appears to have some range and does okay when pointed in the right direction. Co-star Andy On, a pretty good screen fighter himself, is a bit more well-rounded, going from threatening to funny smoothly enough to make a quality villain and potential hero; he's actually kind of a blast to watch in between fights. Chen Kuan-tai plays the scheming villain, which is a nifty easter egg, as he played Ma Yongzhen in the 1972 Shaw Brothers classic The Boxer from Shantung.

The script from Hong Kong workhorse Wong Jing is good enough; there's a mess of supporting characters whose relations aren't quite clear throughout, although it's not like this information actually matters in the grand scheme of things, and Wong does actually feed Ng and On some memorable bits aside from fights. Motivations do make a bit of a weird pivot toward the end as Long shifts emphasis from being a greedy, murderous gangster to a guy willing to make a stand against the Japanese; it's not quite the alarm-worthy flag-waving you find in some recent Chinese movies, just a weirdly quick character rehabilitation.

That doesn't really matter, though, because the action is well worth a ticket, a bunch of guys skilled at selling fights on-screen doing what they do best. Hong Kong hasn't been making as many of these movies that put kung fu front and center lately, and here's hoping that Ng, On, and company can give this genre the boost it needs.

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originally posted: 08/05/14 15:20:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/07/14 Albert Valentin A decent reboot of the Shaw Brothers classic Boxer from Shantung 4 stars
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Directed by
  Ching-Po Wong

Written by
  Jing Wong

  Sammo Hung
  Andy On
  Raiden Integra
  Philip Ng
  Luxia Jiang

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