Once Upon A Time In China 3 Review
Following two critically acclaimed and publicly successful films with Once Upon A Time in China parts 1 and 2 (OUATIC parts 1 and 2 from now on!) director Tsui Hark faced no small task when he started work on Once Upon A Time In China 3 and while he may not have met the dizzying heights of the first or the sheer genius of the action set pieces featured in the second he has brought a combination of the two together with great results for the third in this wonderful series.
Reprising the role of Wong Fei-Hung for the third time is the always-charismatic Jet Li whose character has, by this time, accepted his feelings for Aunt Yee (portrayed by the spectacular Rosamund Kwan who is also reprising her role for a third time) and they are now betrothed to each other. Having arrived in Beijing with the purpose of informing Fei-Hung's father, Wong Kei-Ying (portrayed by Lau Shaun) of the quite unexpected, and for the time unorthodox news they find themselves in the middle of preparations for the recently announced 'Lion Dance Festival' which sees various Martial Arts schools competing against each other both on the streets prior to the festival and for the films finale, at the festival. More trouble is afoot however when Fei-Hung arrives home to find his father has been attacked by 'Ironfoot' (played by Hung Yan Yan) at the command of the maniacal Chium Tim-ba who will go to any length (which usually means killing or paying off other schools members) to ensure his team wins the upcoming festival trophy.
From here the story progresses with Wong Fei-hung attempting to prevent the fights occurring as a result of the 'Lion Dance Festival' which leads to strong opposition from the lead bad-guy, Chium Tim-ba. All the while we are treated to the blossoming relationship between Fei-Hung and Aunt Yee (or as Fei-Hung begins to use her actual name, Peony) which makes for some wonderfully touching moments (including their first kiss and many longing glances) and some quite hilarious ones as a result of the various reactions their new-found affection for each other brings about. An old friend of Aunt Yee's, Mr Tomansky only fuels the fire as we actually see Fei-Hung become jealous, much to Yee's delight as he is showing his true feelings far more openly. As the plot progresses and after several encounters with Chium Tim-ba and his right hand man, Ironfoot, another sub-plot quite unexpectedly comes into play which leads to Fei-hung entering the Lion Dance festival for what proves to be a quite epic finale.
Fans of the originals will be pleased to hear that the standard of acting is again very high maintaining the loveable characters various persona's while also developing them as the story sees fit. Li is fantastic as Fei-Hung, his calm yet cool manner is appealing while he has already more than proven himself as the Martial Arts master we all know and love and continues to do so here. Rosamund Kwan is simply captivating as Aunt Yee who maintains her innocent yet strong character while Mok Sui-Chung as Fei-Hung’s apprentice, Foon, is as comical as ever. Lau Shaun as Wong Kei-Ying offers fine support to the leading cast and gains some of the biggest laughs due to his wonderful reaction shots. An honourable mention must also go out to John Wakefield (as Mr Tomansky) who serves as one of the few Western actors in Hong Kong cinema who can actually carry himself without looking the fool (and is actually very competent in this sizeable role).
Many themes from the first two films carry on in the third including the political overtones of the time which mostly concern the increasing number of western influences that were becoming more and more apparent in Chinese civilisation and are of course most apparent through the character of Aunt Yee. While these plot elements may be slightly lost on a Western audience (and they are not exactly developed a great deal) their inclusion is welcome as it lends a degree of credibility to the sometimes 'fantastic' nature of the series. Another staple of the OUATIC films is the always-breathtaking set and costume design, and of course the always wonderful cinematography. The former is taken to all new heights thanks to the decision to film on location in Beijing which lends itself to the period beautifully with its many well realised locations and in particular the Palace which stages the films epic introductory sequence that sees hundreds of fully costumed extras in action as they perform Lion Dances. Addressing the latter the films cinematography was left in the capable hands of the now acclaimed Director, Andrew Lau (of Stormriders fame) who has taken the grand setting of Beijing and bathed it in colours and lighting that creates some wonderfully cinematic moments that just lends itself to the 'epic' feel first seen in the original.
Of course another staple of the OUATIC series are the often-spectacular Martial Arts displays that do of course show one of China's most legendary Martial Artists at work (I will leave you to decide if that statement refers to Wong Fei-Hung or Jet Li!) so expectations are always high. Straight away I have to say that the fight choreography on display is good, but cannot stand up to the sheer quality of that seen from Yuen Woo-Ping in OUATIC2. Rather than try to emulate Woo-Ping’s style, choreographer Yuen Tak took OUATIC3 in a new direction, mostly because rather than the more standard one-on-one or one against several fights seen in the originals OUATIC3 sees Wong Fei-Hung face dozens of opponents at anyone time. This results in some fast and frenetic action that initially has more in common with the action seen in the likes of Fong Sai Yuk but soon becomes more grounded in nature and allows for some great up close and personal combat that sees Jet show both his natural ability and his near perfect control on wires.
While the action does seem to wind down a little in the last fifteen minutes (mostly because it seems to lose the star status with Jet being covered by a Lion Dance costume) OUATIC3 is still a riveting experience that is wonderfully realised and superbly acted throughout. The only disappointments came from a slightly weaker story element that lacks the moral complexity of the original and the fact that not one fight sequence really stands out like the finales did in both OUATIC and OUATIC2. What proved to be a surprise though was just how much OUATIC3 made me laugh thanks to some great comical performances and the ever present (but far more toned down for this series) physical comedy of Hong Kong films which mixed with the action and love story segments keep the film moving at a great pace.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is a dual encoded R2/4 release. The BBFC have chosen to cut this release by 4 seconds for Animal Cruelty which would appear to be a mistake on their behalf as they originally cut the Theatrical Release print, only to reinstate the cuts on future VHS releases after reconsidering their decision and finding they were incorrect. For this DVD release they have gone back to their original decision and while they have admitted their mistake it was too late for the cuts to be reinstated. The scene in question involves a horse being tripped.
HKL have sourced another almost impeccable quality print that with the added restoration work they do results in a quite spectacular final effort. Presented at the films original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement the print has barely a scratch on it but there is of course the occasional flaw with the most noticeable occurring at the 77min mark where a vertical line is present in the centre of the screen for a few seconds. There is also a fine level of grain present throughout most of the film, it is however for the most part barely noticeable. These minor faults are more than made up for by the consistently high detail levels that really lend themselves to the films superb sets and costumes that just flood your screen with detail (although it could still do with being slightly higher in the mid to far range levels), all of which are also beautifully rendered with bright vibrant colours and near perfect blacks (that are extremely important and very well handled in the films night-time finale).
My only gripe with the transfer is one that I have noticed others complain about with recent releases from HKL, but it is something I have not noticed until this release (and still do not see on previous releases) - Edge Enhancement (EE). The opening minutes with the Lion Dance demonstrations at the Palace showcase EE around the Palace rooftops that are offset against the cloudy sky, and it is only on occasions like this throughout the film that low levels of EE can be noticed. This is slightly disappointing, especially for myself as its a flaw my eye rarely spots, so for me to do so on this release proves it is there to a noticeable level. In my mind though it is forgivable due to it only occurring (or being noticeable) for roughly 3-5mins of the entire 106min running time, but is disappointing none-the-less. Still, I see no reason why we should let this drag the release down, as on all other levels it is a very fine effort, but HKL should adjust their transfer process to fix this problem on future releases.
Hong Kong Legends have provided us with Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes of both the Original Cantonese language track and the optional English Dub track. For viewing purposes I sampled the Cantonese Language track as I far prefer to watch a film in its original language and I am pleased to report another superbly remixed soundtrack that is crystal clear and a pleasure to listen to. Decent use is made of the rear speakers with some basic separation and panning effects but their main use is to project the musical score around the room which results in pure delight whenever we are treated to the captivating main theme (in any of its many iterations). Dialogue is fixed to the centre speaker and is localised to the fronts when the onscreen action calls for it while the use of LFE is, in my opinion slightly over the top with every blow in the fight sequences making a thud but then you can control just how loud this is so its really down to your own preference (just turn that dial). Although I did not listen to the English dub in its entirety it seemed to be of the usual standard, and offered a very similar DD5.1 experience to that of the Cantonese track, which is of course my preferred and recommended choice. The English subtitles are as ever of a very high standard with a clear and easy to read font and flawless spelling and grammar.
Hong Kong Legends regular Bey Logan returns for a third time to complete a trilogy of fascinating commentaries on Tsui Harks crowning glories of the early nineties. Yet again Bey offers up background information on the cast and crew, including some interesting stories about Jet Li while he also fills us in on the slightly complicated history of Hung Yan Yan (who plays Ironfoot) who has since acquired a new name since he began work in the US. The cast and crew information is not quite as in-depth as it would usually be for the simple reason that Bey has already delved in to their backgrounds on previous OUATIC commentaries, so here we are given a brief reminder while the majority of the commentary is dedicated to giving us a brief history lesson on Wong Fei-Hung (and again Bey has already given us an in-depth account of this character on the OUATIC commentary) and a more in-depth look at the period in which the story takes place. Another area that Bey really gets into is that of Lion Dancing where he gives an excellent primer that certainly increased my own knowledge on the subject while he also manages to squeeze in a great joke at British Rail's expense!
The interview gallery features a 22-minute talk with Director Tsui Hark and a 10-minute talk with John Wakefield (who plays Mr Tomansky). Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen (though the quality is very low with an overly soft picture) is the Tsui Hark interview where, speaking in English, he talks about the setting and story of OUATIC3, his thoughts on the real life Wong Fei-Hung, and from there he goes on to talk about filmmaking in general. This is a very informative interview that covers a lot of ground on both the OUATIC films and Harks thoughts on filmmaking in general (his thoughts on the use of Special Effects in particular are interesting considering his recent disappointment, The Legend of Zu). Another area of note was when Hark is queried on his occasional acting work in films where-upon we are treated to some clips from what I believe is the forthcoming HKL release, Police Assassins. If I am correct then the restoration job is looking to be of a high standard already. Interspersed throughout the interview are clips from OUATIC3 that are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen but rather annoyingly containing no subtitles.
The second interview with John Wakefield is again presented in Anamorphic Widescreen and while the quality is a little better than Harks Interview it still has that camcorder look. John offers up a series of brief discussions on his role in the film like how it came about and the working conditions on the set and while he mentions the main cast and crew he never really offers any in-depth impressions on them and sometimes comes across as being 'nice'. Indeed, in his closing comments he says he would like to get back into acting, which suggests this may be the case, but still, this is a welcome addition to the disc and is certainly worth your time. This interview also features clips from OUATIC3 in Anamorphic Widescreen and yet again they do not contain subtitles.
Throughout both interviews you will notice some Behind-the-Scenes footage from the final 'Ladder' fight in OUATIC1. As an extra bonus HKL have included the full 3-minute segment of this Behind-the-Scenes footage as an easy to find Easter Egg that is well worth the effort required to locate as it quite clearly shows Jet Li on crutches (due to an injury he had during the filming on OUATIC) with Hung Yan Yan taking his place for a large segment of the action (and of course Hung Yan Yan plays Ironfoot in OUATIC3, and also played the Black Lotus leader in OUATIC2).
If I counted correctly we are treated to a comprehensive 67-page biography for Jet Li that covers everything from his beginnings as a Wu Shu champion to his work in films onto his eventual move to Hollywood. The text is the same as that found in the previous HKL Jet Li releases that featured Animated Biographies with the oh-so popular 'American Voice Over Man' (whom I actually quite like) except for this release we find a few additional sections in the later stages that cover his recent releases, Kiss of the Dragon and The One. Could this be the end of the Animated Biography and American Voice Over Man? Only time will tell but if it lends itself to more space for the film then I am personally all for it.
The final extras consist of a 25-picture photo gallery that is of the standard fare although I am quite sure at least one of the pictures is of the on-set/behind-the-scenes variety. Rounding this release off is the obligatory but essential inclusion of the original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (which is actually very good and comes in at a shorter than usual 3-minutes) that is presented in 2:35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, as is the OUATIC3 HKL Promotional Trailer. You will also find HKL Promotional Trailers for OUATIC parts 1 and 2.
OUATIC3 makes for another excellent addition to the OUATIC series of films and although it is not quite as good as its predecessors it certainly serves as a solid bout of Hong Kong style entertainment and should not be missed by any fan of the genre. The Hong Kong Legends DVD is of a very high standard with a picture that is marred by a few (forgivable) mistakes but is on the whole very pleasing while the audio and special features are superb making this the DVD to own.