It’s Saturday! I try to be consistent with our movie date being on Saturdays but it’s so hard to be on schedule. Made more difficult because I rarely watch films. Good news today though, cause I have stumbled upon a film worth your time, boys and girls, especially the group of thirsty Kung Fu fans. Oy, how I miss true hand-to-hand combats in cinema so much!
NOTE: The following does not contain spoilers about the ending, only a brief synopsis of the beginning to get your blood going. Those kung fu shots are there to lure you in. Please don’t hesitate.
What’s the Story About?
A country pumpkin, Ma Yong Zhen (Philip Ng), arrives at Shanghai in 1930s, with a hopeful heart. Before he makes it to land, Yong Zhen is embroiled in a quick fight with the other tenants on the ship. Mind you, he is humble and honest, so when a shameless man steals and tries to eat a bun from a young girl, his principle does not allow it. He has a fist of fury, and to protect himself from irreversibly hurting another being, his mother has placed a jade bracelet on his right arm, standing as a reminder not to kill.
Shanghai, known as the land of money and paradise, does not come without its prices, and Yong Zhen soon finds himself in the poorest region of the city, living with a retired Kung Fu master, Master Tie (Sammo Hung), and his villagers. Thanks to his immense strength, he is able to find work for himself and his friends at a warehouse. The vibrant and prosperous lives in Shanghai is simply a dream, Yong Zhen slowly learns. He’s regaled stories of the four Gang Leaders of Shanghai Bund and how their turfs are being shaken and taken away by the new youth in town, Long Qi (Andy On). Adept in martial arts, the young man has risen the ranks and becomes his own force to be reckoned with.
Yong Zhen tries his best to live peacefully but greed is the problem in the hearts of many and a poor father stole a bag of opium, disguised as a bag of tea, in hopes of sending his young daughter to a better life in Hong Kong. The opium-tea is a valuable transaction between the Shanghai mobs and the Japanese. When he’s discovered, the poor father is beaten to a pulp, with his life hanging on a thin line. Enraged by the oppression and disregard for human lives, Yong Zhen confronts one of the lower-leveled dogs of the famous gang, Axe Fraternity. He defeats the oncoming dozen of men with great strength and masterful moves, before targeting the big shark —– > Long Qi.
Despite the warning from his friends that none can take on ten moves of Long Qi, our Yong Zhen stands before his formidable opponent with dead-set resolution to take away his truck of opium. Confident and slightly amused by this simpleton, Long Qi says never mind the number of moves, if Yong Zhen can beat him before his cigarette burns out, he can walk away with the opium freely. Well, well, well, challenge is accepted, handsome boy. Remember his smoke-free face. Lol.
This is so badass (he kicks the cigar out of his mouth) and I didn’t breathe for a second. So close!
His face afterwards. 😀
After that fight, the unlikely friendship forms between the two. Yong Zhen and his friends become waiters at Long Qi’s Paradise Club. The bromance is adorable and I totally didn’t expect the story to go that way. Both positively influence the other and they grow closer and closer.
Thoughts on Story, Performances, and Trivia Related Bits
Having played mostly second lead roles in films and directed a few action movies, Philip Ng finally has his big break as the lead in Once Upon A Time in Shanghai. His hair is definitely a tribute to the legendary Bruce Lee, and Philip got to show off his accomplished martial arts background very well throughout the film. Yes, there are sequences using wires, but did it take away from the real actions? Nope. I’m impressed by the fighting choreography and wishes there were more innovative moves, something that Jackie Chan excels at, with the ways he manipulates props into cool-looking weapons. If only he’s got his hands on these two aspiring martial arts actors. WHY?!!
Equally impressively in fighting skills, we have the handsome Andy On, whose charismatic performance leaves you glued to the screen (though not his manic laughs at times.) His gradual convergence from an arrogant, ruthless, big boss to a good, kinder mobster, was well presented by Andy. It’s in those little movements, from him biting his lips eagerly and boyishly to the quiet energy of opposition against the Japanese, that Andy made known he’s not only a man of remarkable kung fu, he’s also a great actor who pays attention to details.
The funny thing is when I searched up these two, I’m shocked by their ages…
Description: Two new action stars….
With both approaching the age of 40s soon. What the hell, Hong Kong? How could you waste their talents all these years. I’m floored. And this is why cinema in Hong Kong has become so stale and boring in the past decade. Don’t believe me? Let’s see….
You look up actors from a film and you see a stable of names: Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, Sean Lau, Andy Lau….
Then the next…Sean Lau, Nick Cheung, Andy Lau, Louis Koo….
Don’t throw rocks at me, I’m not dissing these actors, as they are great actors, but the problem lies in a lack of variety in the actors pool. With the actresses, you still see an unhealthy dose of familiar faces but they do rotate more frequently than the men.
Anyway, rant aside, I do recommend this nostalgic film, shot with a grayish filter to maintain the classy ambiance of the glamorous Shanghai. While the story has been done many times before, the real meat is the effort behind the spectacular real fighting sequences by real actors. How many times have you watched a film (or a drama) and the ludicrous kung fu scenes make you cringe? Not here! Though fans looking forward to see Sammo Hung and the wonderful line of veteran actors in action might be slightly disappointed because it is not about them here, hence they are not the highlights. You can think of their presence in the movie as them passing off the torch to the younger generation (ahum).