(This blog follows on from 2 blogs I wrote on the character of Wong Fei Hung and his portrayal by Jet Li.)
The nascent romance between Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) leisurely unfolds, not just in Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC), but in the next 2 sequels. It is a lovely romance to watch, and adds a satisfyingly sentimental flavour to the film. What it also does is give us a sense of Wong having a developed emotional side to his personality. The character of Wong Fei Hung is one who is constrained by the expectations of the society he lives in, and his own determination to adhere to a personal code of self restraint and discipline, and to behave in a way that befits a sifu and Chinese doctor – calm, dignified, slow to react, and unemotional. I like Bey Logan’s point (on his commentary to the DVD release of this film) that Aunt Yee is the one who makes the running in this romance, and who is not afraid to assert herself emotionally. Man of action Wong is awkward and even alarmed when it comes to dealing with feelings. This is a character that could easily come across as cold, repressed and aloof, but director Tsui Hark circumvents this by showing us the burgeoning romantic relationship between Aunt Yee and Wong. Aunt Yee is Wong’s Aunt by marriage, not blood, but conventions of the time would have frowned on a union between these 2 as being not quite ‘right’*. The fact that Wong, despite being determined to respect tradition, cannot avoid or suppress his feelings for Aunt Yee shows us that he is a man of strong passion despite his surface restraint.
And it is interesting to consider who this passion is for. Aunt Yee (charmingly played by Rosamund Kwan) would be an unconventional character in Victorian times, not just in China, but also by Western standards. She has learnt English and embraced Western technology. She is passionate about cameras, and nonchalant about the idea that the West will soon have inroads into China (she just thinks Wong should get himself a nice Western suit). A woman like her would have been considered bizarre, if not a little disreputable (perhaps), to other Chinese of the time. In OUTIC, the owner of the Chinese Opera troupe harrumphs, in private, about Chinese women dressing like Westerners. But even by Western standards of the time she would have been seen as an exotic (being Chinese), and something of a Blue Stocking – an educated lady who, in her fascination with the traditionally male pursuits of education, travel and technology, defined herself as a rugged individual. This is the free spirited woman who becomes the focus of the tenderest feelings of the conventionally minded Wong, suggesting that, within his mental concept of a well ordered universe run in line with Confucian precepts, he is big enough, perhaps I could say man enough, to make some room for something, or someone, different.
*Thanks to Bey Logan’s commentary for this information.
Next I will post a blog about Yam Sai Kwun and the character he plays in OUTIC – Iron Robe Yim.