Already at its outset, Once Upon a Time in China (1991) leaves a mark, displaying one of the most iconic images of athletic prowess and national pride in Hong Kong action cinema: a panorama of at least a hundred men, bare chests glistening and queues swinging as they perform martial arts in perfect sync on a seemingly infinite coast. Directed by Tsui Hark and top-lined by Jet Li, the epic that follows sustains this stirring spirit. The film heralded one of the most successful Chinese martial-arts franchises ever made, setting a gold standard in action choreography, and along the way presenting a complex picture of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinese history.
The creative force behind the series, Tsui went on to direct four of the five Once Upon a Time in China films, while presiding over all of them, in addition to the stand-alone Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997), as producer. One cannot imagine Hong Kong cinema without Tsui—its golden age would lose its luster. He has been called the Asian Steven Spielberg, for his childlike wonder, trendsetting genius, and box-office wizardry. But he earned this comparison while working with far fewer financial and technical resources, under pressure-cooker conditions. He has summed up his Hong Kong career as “fighting in a narrow lane.”
From the start of his career, the hands-on Tsui found ways to subvert the mainstream, even as he worked at the epicenter of the world’s most commercially driven film industry. The three movies that vaulted him to the forefront of the Hong Kong New Wave—The Butterfly Murders (1979), We’re Going to Eat You (1980), and Dangerous Encounter—1st Kind (1980)—are ghoulishly nihilistic. As much a tech geek as a gripping storyteller, he also revolutionized production technology in Hong Kong, hiring special-effects experts who had worked on the Star Wars films to help recreate the ancient beauty of fifth-century Dunhuang civilization in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). After shifting his focus to the Mainland Chinese market following the turn of the millennium, he enlisted Avatar visual-effects supervisor Chuck Comisky for the country’s first 3D IMAX movie, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011).
“The series transcends popcorn entertainment by placing its characters within the wider historical context of China’s painful thrust into modernity under the pressure of Western colonialism.”
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