Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)
Is a Hong Kong martial arts movie today similar to a Hollywood musical in 1975 or a Hollywood western in 1983? A genre limping past its prime? Is that just my perspective or do they feel that way in Hong Kong, too?
I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for two years (roughly: 1988-90), and I returned to the states a fan of the genre, which most Americans, at the time, associated with silly, z-grade fare. I brought with me a bootlegged, VHS tape of one of Jackie Chan’s early films, “The Young Master,” which I showed around. Most adults dismissed it before it began; kids loved it. They loved Jackie. They sensed a comrade in getting away with, and out of, shit. When the Varsity Theater added Hong Kong weeks to its calendar schedule in 1993 I tried to get anybody and everybody to go with me. I usually went alone. One conversation I remember in particular. My friend I-Ning, from Singapore, didn’t want to go, but we began talking about the genre and its stars, and I asked her, “Hey, whatever happened to Zhou Ren Fa? When I was in Taipei, he was everywhere. A big, big star. I even had a lighter with his picture on it. Now I never hear his name mentioned. People just talk about Chow Yun Fat. But whatever happened to Zhou Ren Fa?”
She responded with one of my favorite sentences ever: “Chow Yun Fat is Zhou Ren Fa.” (Chow is the Cantonese version of his name; Zhou, the Mandarin.)
The point is I knew Hong Kong movies back then, and I don’t now, so I don’t know if “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai,” directed by Wong Ching-po, with action choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, is indicative of genre today, and if its stars, Philip Ng and Andy On, are supposed to be anything. They can still do the routines, sure, but it feels rote. It lacks imagination. The movie has a dreamlike quality, but that seems less intentional, less Lynchian, and more a matter of poor plotting. The movie eliminates almost all exposition, and tries to give us just the good bits; except they’re rarely good. I was bored quickly.
Like Kelly and Caron
Ma Yongzhen (Ng) is a farmboy with massive martial arts skills who goes to the big city: Shanghai 1930. He’s got a jade bracelet on his right wrist because he’s promised his mother: 1) not to kill anyone with his strong right fist, and 2) to stay away from the gangs.
On the boat ride over, he gets into a fight, but that’s because some gang member literally steals food out of the mouth of a young girl. In Shanghai, he and his village compatriots meet up with a village uncle, or cousin, who’s basically comic relief, and who gets them into the door of a laborer job. Ma’s strength does the rest.
Ah, but one of his village compatriots steals some of the product, a bag of opium, and the gang beats him up. Ma, stoic, fuming, returns the bag, fights the gang, and calls the police. Or the police arrive anyway. Are they corrupt? I’m not sure. Is Ma in jail or under their protection? Questions, questions. The true gang leader, Long Qi (On), whom we’ve seen dispatch a legendary triad member in stylistic fashion without breaking a sweat, retrieves the opium from the cops. Then Ma calls him out. They fight. So soon? Here, they fight to a standstill. Here, they fight until Long’s cigarillo burns out. As a result, Ma wins the dope but rather than sell it he sets it on fire. To Long Qi’s forced, cheesy laughter. Truly, it’s one of the worst laughs in movie history.
What happens next is both a breath of fresh air and completely nonsensical. Ma, who has promised his mother to stay away from the gangs, gets a job with ... Long Qi? To keep an eye on him? No. Or we don’t know why he does it. He just does it. He becomes Long’s right-hand man. And Long Qi loves having him around, loves fighting with him at odd intervals around town, as if fight were dance and they were Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in “An American in Paris.” It’s the great love story of the movie. Ma has Michelle Hu, the mouthy girl back in the nice, poor section of Shanghai, run by Sammo Hung; and Long has the catatonic singer, Jao Junjie, who sings “Ku-be ku-yi,” and who ultimately betrays him to the Japanese; but theirs, Ma’s and Long’s, is the movie’s true love story.
Once Upon a Time in Nanjing
How do you make an evil gang leader like Long Qi good? By making the other triad members collaborators with the Japanese. Long is then poisoned and beheaded by the axe gang, while Ma can only watch helplessly, and histrionically, behind a strong metal prison door. Which sets up our final act: Ma taking out all the triad leaders, and the Japanese, with his superior kung fu skills. Does no one carry a gun around town? A machine gun? Don’t they know what year this is?
There are a few worthwhile moments. Anything with Sammo Hung, really, who, at 62, maintains grace and an economy of movement in his few fight scenes. I also liked this exchange between Ma and the underutilized, mouthy Michelle Hu:
She: I will treat you better.
He (hopeful): How much better?
She: I won’t scold you.
But once Long died, I lost interest. I knew where it was going. It got there. How awful, by the way, to make patriotic movies set in China in 1930. Knowing what comes next for China. That’s how I occupied myself while watching Ma beat back the Japanese here. Sure, kid. Great, kid. But where are you in 1937?