The Elements in Once Upon A Time In China

(In the last blog I posted on this film I wrote about the choreography in the climactic fight scene between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim).

Once Upon A Time In China (OUTIC) is a beautifully crafted film. One aspect that has always interested me very much is the use of elements throughout the film. Water, fire, air, metal and earth are all seem to illustrate and underscore the plot and themes of this movie. Some of the elements are featured more obviously than others, but this film has been shot with a positively sensual regard to texture and visual detail, and it is easy to get an almost tactile sense of the sets in the film. We are constantly finding ourselves being made conscious of the wood of the buildings, the metal in fittings and props, and the dust and dirt of the ground and in the set.

“To allow for movement to occur and bring about change, Chinese philosophy calls upon the five elements as agents of change and reaction. Change, the Chinese say, derives from the influence of the five main elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water – on the basic Yin and Yang balances.” (p. xxiii, The New Chinese Astrology by Suzanne White).

I would consider the element of air as being present, in addition to these five elements, in OUTIC.


This element is very present in the final fight scene, which takes place in what looks like a kind of warehouse. A major component of this fight scene is the way wooden and metal fixtures and props are deployed in the choreography. Yuen Wu Ping makes extensive use of bamboo ladders especially, so much so that it could be argued that the fight features choreography for 3 participants – Wong Fei Hung, Iron Robe Yim, and bamboo. Interestingly, the use of bamboo is continued in OUTIC 2 where Wong Fei Hung has to combat Commander Lam in a bamboo bedecked setting, in not one but 2 fight scenes.

 Wood could be said to make a cameo appearance in another fight scene. When Iron Robe Yim first challenges Wong to a duel at Wong’s clinic, they end up fighting in the rain and having to dodge an airborne log that is sent hurtling through space by the power of the  blows of the combatants. Again, this fight scene has 3 participants – Wong, Yim and the log. It takes place in the pouring rain and features extensive use of wire fu in order to keep the log in the air. So not only does wood, but the elements of air and water, dominate this scene.


2 important and dramatic scenes feature the element of fire. The first is when Wong’s clinic is burnt down by the Shaho gangsters, the second is a fight scene featuring Iron Robe Yim in front of a bonfire. In both these scenes fire is a backdrop and (in the case of destroying the clinic) an agent of destruction. The action in these scenes has been initiated by the film’s bad guys (Shaho gangsters and Yim respectively) and it is paradoxical that while the destruction of the clinic and the killing of a man are morally ugly, the use of fire adds a visually striking and exciting effect to these scenes. The fire underlines the primitive and aggressive tone of the action of these scenes, but also contributes drama and beauty.


Earth is probably the least obviously visual element in this movie. But in the attention to visual detail and texture in the lovely cinematography of this film it is still subtly present. We are given shots of feet pacing red earth, and in an early scene one of Porky Wing’s sides of pork slides off his cart into the dirt. In the fight in the rain at Po Chi Lam we see close ups of Wong and Yim’s feet gliding, cat like, across the mud. When Yim starts to unravel during the final climactic fight scene we see him shaking out his mane of hair after his cue has been cut, and squinting and staggering blindly because his eyes are full of dust from the floor. Earth, along with metal and water, is constantly highlighted texturally in the loving detail of the cinematography, and the viewer gets an incredibly strong sense of the physical qualities of the world this film is set in.


One of the most striking ways the element of metal is represented in this film is the use of weapons, especially bullets. This film is set at a time when China is first being introduced to Western technology. The gun and use of bullets are a manifestation of this new technology that the Chinese in the film are threatened and bewildered by (Aunt Yee’s fascination with cameras represents a more benevolent and creative aspect of this technology). During the film we see Chinese being indiscriminately shot by trigger happy Western soldiers, and it is Western bullets that kill Iron Robe Yim (now that’s an interesting name to include in a paragraph about metal), although not before they destroy his faith in his heritage – “It’s true. Our kung fu is no use against Western bullets” are his tragic dying words.

 It is also interesting to consider that metal is being used to undermine the Chinese in another way – they are being tempted into leaving their jobs, families and country to go to America to search for a metal called gold. This turns out to be a scam with disastrous consequences for the Chinese who fall for it. Metal makes a brief but chilling manifestation when we see the arm of a Chinese man who has escaped from the Westerners, but not before being branded by them with an iron brand.

 In the introductory pages to her excellent book The New Chinese Astrology, Suzanne White briefly but succinctly explains the significance of the 5 elements in Chinese philosophy. She has this to say about people who are heavily influenced by metal:

“They need to keep a bizarre capacity for creating discord and a gift for sowing harmony in constant balance” (p. xxiv).

If metal is linked with Western technology in OUTIC then I believe that the film similarly explores the capacity of this technology (as represented by metal) to either create discord (by killing people with guns or luring them overseas to mine gold) or to sow harmony or do something useful (Aunt Yee’s use of a camera, the steam train in OUTIC 2, and the use of a steam engine to drive the mass production of medicine in OUTIC 3).

 There are a couple of nice instances in the film where Chinese and Western technologies  meet and combine harmoniously. Buck Tooth So is a Chinese man who has lived overseas and who has (like Aunt Yee) learnt English and happily embraced Western innovation. He is shown using his Western medical education to work alongside Chinese traditional medical practitioner Wong Fei Hung (who regards Buck Tooth approvingly and fondly throughout the film). This foreshadows a similar collaboration between Chinese and Western medical processes in OUTIC 2, which features a scene in which Wong works alongside western medical practitioner Dr. Sun Yat Sen.

 In the very last action scene Wong kills a villain with a bullet, but what is interesting here is that he doesn’t kill him with a gun. Wong’s superior martial arts ability enables him to flick the bullet with such accuracy and force that he performs the action of the gun.

“…his Wong… who in opposing guns (in Part One) actually becomes a gun, firing a bullet to lethal effect with his finger.” p. 143, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt.

Chinese martial arts and Western technology combine to eradicate a force for evil and to remove the last obstacle Wong, and the people he protects, have in this plot of this film.


The element of Water makes quite a few guest appearances, most memorably in the form of rainfall. It seems to be especially linked with Iron Robe Yim. The first time we see this character he is busking on the streets in the rain. The first fight we see him in is visually dominated by the flickering light of a huge bonfire. After he kills his opponent the crowd flees a sudden downpour and leaves Yim standing alone in the rainfall. Tsui cleverly uses fire and water to underscore the drama of the scene. The rain contrasts with the flames of the fire, and literally puts a dampener on the mood as a man has died. The storm also suggests to us that things are getting worse and that the atmosphere is building up (most of the action has taken place in daylight up till now and, much of it will take place in darkness from now on).

 Following this fight scene we see a few more scenes in the rain leading up to the next fight scene, which happens between Yim and Wong in Wong’s clinic’s forecourt, and also in the pouring rain. For me, the rain somehow contributes a ‘locked in’ feeling, or a sense of circumscribed space. As much as Wong and Yim are apart in terms of histories / social position the rain somehow contains them in time and place, and their journeys through the rest of the film are now linked. The rain closes in around them, inhibits outward journeying, and brings a sense of circumstances pressing down upon these 2 men.


The 5 elements that are referred to in Chinese philosophy (and in this blog so far) are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. In considering OUTIC I would also add in the element of air. I feel that this must get an honourable mention because of all the wirefu in the choreography in this film. So much action is released from the forces of gravity and takes place in the air. We see the fighters, especially in the climactic fight scene, supposedly ignore the forces of gravity and fight off the ground – either balanced on ladders or flying through the air.

 OUTIC is such a visually rich film, and the use of these elements adds enormously to its symbolic and visual richness. I am not sure if Tsui Hark was conscious of his use of them, or if the viewer is supposed to pick up on any symbolism inferred by them, but for me, the presence of the elements in this film is a visual theme that I always look out for and enjoy when re-watching this movie, and they are an important factor that contributes to the sumptuousness of this film.

 My last blog on OUTIC is a brief one on the depiction of westerners in this film.

This entry was posted in jet li, kung fu movies, martial arts movies, Once Upon A Time In China, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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