Director: Wong Ching Po
Starring: Philip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung, Michelle Hu, Chen Kuan-tai, Jiang Luxia, Fung Hak-on
Arriving in Shanghai, humble country boy Ma Yongzhen (Phillip Ng) finds his expectations of wealth and possibility in the big city dampened by the overwhelming competition and control by organized crime. The strongest of these groups vying for control of the city is the faction led by the upstart Long Qi (Andy On) a formidable fighter of no small repute. As Ma’s skills become known to the competitive Long, a friendship of sorts forms between the two and Ma must decide what to do when the recently usurped rulers of Shanghai turn to foreign power for help in getting their revenge.
Directed by Wong Ching Po, who has had somewhat of a checkered filmography under his belt, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a throwback martial arts film of sorts that more than aptly entertains those looking for high intensity martial arts action. Featuring the first collaboration in years by former collaborators Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai showcases two of the best young fighters working in Chinese cinema today doing what they do best. Featuring martial arts choreography by the aforementioned Yuen, the film will also reward viewers with a fondness of old school martial arts by the number of cameos peppered throughout. Sammo Hung has perhaps merely an extended cameo this time around, not unlike his many short appearances in 90’s era martial arts films, but the inclusion of names like Chen Kuan Tai, Fung Hak-on, and Yuen Cheung-yan certainly brought a smile to my face.
The fight scenes are pretty stellar, with the highlights being the first encounter between the characters played by On and Ng as well as the extended fight between Phillip Ng and former wushu champion Liu Yongchen. Sammo himself has a bit of an effects laden scuffle and the always welcome Jiang Luxia gets a chance to show a bit of her skills but it is all over way too fast. Female lead Michelle Hu is just the right type of appealing but the focus of the film certainly lies with the brotherly comraderie between Ng and On. A small gripe is that the final fight is not the best action scene in the film but rather a letdown after the stellar buildup and promise of violence. Regardless, the martial arts are top notch and the choreography by Yuen is interesting and exciting.
As a fight film first and foremost, the acting itself is generally an aside to get to the action. Ng’s honorable country bumpkin Ma is at time tough to watch, his slack jawed look almost a caricature for the film’s goings-ons, but at least he’s consistent throughout the film. Andy On’s tough and cool Long certainly is a vast improvement over his no dialogue baddies from which he’s made his reputation. Very likable, I hope this leads to more starring turns for one of my favorite modern day film fighters.
Overall, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is very fast-paced and action packed film that will more than satisfy those looking for some modern and high budgeted martial arts. While the purely technical level of storytelling may merely be a smidgen above the average no-brain chop socky films of old, there is enough here, by enough decent performances to make for a fine hour and a half as long as you know what you’re getting into.
Special thanks to Well Go USA for providing a viewing copy!