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Once Upon a Time In China's secret ingredient: 13th Aunt

Jet Li and Tsui Hark get most of the credit for the Once Upon a Time in China films, but Rosamund Kwan's 13th Aunt lends them that special charm

Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan in 'Once Upon a Time in China III'
Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan in 'Once Upon a Time in China III'

In the early days of cable TV in India, which were my early days as well, two credit sequences set my imagination on fire. The first was Chariots Of Fire (1981), for the Vangelis theme, of course, but also Nigel Havers’ beatific smile registering among the serious runners on the beach. The other was also a beach scene, also partly in slow motion, with a theme song almost as catchy. This was from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China (1991), a phalanx of bare-chested martial club students executing a series of strenuous, eye-catching workouts.

By the time the 1990s got under way, Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark had already made cult favourite Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain (1983) and the masterful Peking Opera Blues (1986) and produced John Woo’s heroic bloodshed classics A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989). In 1991, he embarked on the project he’s arguably most associated with today, a six-film cycle chronicling the adventures of medic and martial artist Wong Fei-hung in late 19th century Foshan. It made a star of Jet Li, who played Wong in the first three films (he was replaced by Vincent Zhao in the fourth and fifth instalments). The final entry, Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997), which predates Jackie Chan’s kung fu Western Shanghai Noon (2000), was directed by Sammo Hung, with Li back in the lead. 

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Wong Fei-hung was an actual medicine man and folk hero who died in 1925. Films on his life started being made in 1948 and never let up. Audiences in 1991 would have been familiar with Jackie Chan’s comic portrayal of Wong in the classic Drunken Master (1978) and perhaps even Gordon Liu in  Challenge of the Masters (1976) and Martial Club (1981). Li’s performance was strikingly different, though. While the films are fairly comedic, the humour doesn’t derive from Wong. Instead, Li presents him as a figure of immense dignity, formally polite and painfully conscientious. This makes Wong the perfect straight man to chaotic disciple Leung Foon (and Bucktooth So and Porky Wing in the first film) and the hapless object of Yee Siu-kwan’s affections. 

Unlike the strictly fight-oriented Chan and Liu films, Hark makes use of a historical period of great ferment in China, turning the films into riotous time capsules. Once Upon A Time In China I begins with French troops mistaking firecrackers during a ceremonial lion dance for an attack and returning fire; Wong jumps in and continues the dance himself. There are also Americans (running a human trafficking ring), British (ineffectual in II) and Russians (plotting to assassinate the empress in III). But for all the nationalistic satisfaction of clobbering or bettering foreign adversaries, the primary antagonists in the three Hark-Li films are Chinese. In I, it’s the nefarious Shaho gang and a wandering kung fu master they enlist. In Canton-set II, it’s the psychotic White Lotus sect, out to destroy all things foreign, and a wily military officer played by Donnie Yen. And in the third film, which unfolds in Beijing, it’s Chiu Tin-bak, a gangster bent on winning the lion dance martial arts competition.

Hark’s eye for scale and colour and Li’s poise and economy of movement combine to make these some of the most pleasurable martial arts films ever made. The legendary Yuen Woo-ping was enlisted to choreograph the fights in the first two films. The second film is legendary for the face-offs between Li and Yen. The climactic fight, with the actors balancing high in the air on a flimsy bamboo structure while wielding long poles, is rated as of the greatest in martial arts cinema. I also love their first meeting: Yen tosses Li a bamboo stick, and, without any warning, starts whacking away at him. This continues for a ferocious minute or so before Yen stops and says, “I just wanted to spar with you a little.” As is usually the case with Hark, the scene is capped with an extra payoff. A couple of spectators grumble that the pole Wong struck during the fight didn’t even move, let alone splinter. Foon walks up to the pole and touches it. The rope around it uncoils and it breaks in two.

Revisiting the Hark-Li films made me realise the series has a secret weapon that has nothing to do with kung fu—Rosamund Kwan as the foreign-returned Yee Siu-kwan, a character invented for the films, whom Wong insists on addressing formally as “13th Aunt” (Siu-kwan’s father was a blood brother of Wong’s grandfather). As the one romantic foil, she spends a lot of time being rescued by Wong. Yet, Yee’s curiosity and pluck means she’s rarely far from the action herself. She’s at her most useful in III, where her dedication to her motion picture camera—we see her graduate from still camera to film over the course of the trilogy—ends up foiling the assassination plot. 

Tsui Hark films often play like screwball comedy—Peking Opera Blues is perhaps the finest example. In the Once Upon films, Kwan is best suited to pull this off, the lone actor in a cast of action specialists. She doesn’t have their physical quickness but makes up for it with an ever-changing array of expressions. In the classic screwball sense, 13th Aunt is a great match for Wong: she’s chaotic and modern, he’s methodical and square. His inability to recognise her attraction to him, and then his panicked dodging of that attraction, takes up a large part of the three films, but never gets old. 

None of this could work without Kwan’s endless good cheer in the face of constant frustration. When Wong finally comes around at the end of the third film, Hark frames this with the momentousness it deserves. Wong, who thinks Yee has left forever, sees her across the room. He calls out to her, using her real name, not 13th Aunt. He then runs towards her, the shot of scurrying feet a neat parody of kung fu films. To the surprise of everyone in the room, most of all Yee, he lifts her up and whirls her in a most un-Wong-like fashion. Kwan laughs in delight, then looks shocked, relieved, exhausted and content. A few seconds that sum up an indelible performance.

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