Once Upon a Time in China (OUTIC) and Once Upon a Time in China 2 (OUTIC 2) are among my very favourite movies of all time. While it is an entertaining and well made movie, Once Upon a Time in China 3 (OUTIC 3) does not seem to reach the same heights as its 2 precursors. OUTIC 3 is a flashy looking film with lots of flamboyant action punctuating an incident filled plot.
“Tsui Hark has created the kung fu equivalent of a Fred Astaire musical.” Paul Fonoroff. At the Hong Kong Movies p. 277
As with the other 2 movies, the quality of the performances range from competent to excellent; and the production values are good. But OUTIC 3 lacks the intensity of focus and the ability to stir the viewer’s emotions that made the first 2 movies so compelling.
One very gratifying element of OUTIC 3, however, is that it sees the happy resolution of the romance between Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li). Director Tsui Hark has allowed himself a whole 3 films for this tender relationship to come to fruition in Yee and Wong’s engagement, and Wong’s father’s acceptance of this. Wong Fei Hung (described as a Chinese Rambo by Tsui Hark in an interview on the special features on my DVD) is portrayed as a martial arts supremo – physically adept but emotionally constrained and awkward in intimacy. Lovely Aunt Yee has occasionally fulfilled the action movie traditional function of being the token rescuable chick. But even though she needs to be physically protected and cared for, she is emotionally assured and romantically assertive. In terms of physical danger Wong gets opportunities to rescue her in these films. Maybe, in terms of emotional intimacy, she rescues him. Towards the end of this film, there is a scene where Wong and Yee reconcile after one of their rows. They rush towards and throw their arms around each other in front of a group of gobsmacked students and elders. In his commentary on this film Bey Logan makes the nice point that at the beginning of the film series it would be impossible to imagine Wong doing anything so demonstrative and impetuous, and that this scene signifies a development in Wong’s character.
As in the other 2 films, Wong and Aunt Yee have some emotionally charged moments, some tender and some a little fractious. These scenes help the audience to understand that these 2 are spirited and strong characters of deep feeling. I am a big Jane Austen fan and love the novel Pride and Prejudice very much. One reason why this novel is so satisfying to read is that the 2 main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, strike sparks off each other. Wong and Yee experience less friction than Lizzie and Darcy, but they still convey the same sense of 2 people who are an equal match, despite having some differences in temperament and behaviour. This is a couple, the viewer feels, who will work. The romantic tension between them (fanned by the occasional clash of opinion or will) is filtered through their determined adherence to the social and behavioural mores of the Confucian society they live in. This makes things all the more sexy. Li and Kwan suit their respective roles beautifully, and act off each other responsively and generate great screen chemistry. All up, the evolution of this romance is an enjoyable component of the first 3 films of the OUTIC series. Perhaps one of the reasons why the franchise ran out of steam after this film is because this romance has no fresh ground it needs to cover?
Aunt Yee fulfills another function in the first 3 films of the OUTIC series. She is a mediator of Wong’s experience of western technology*. In OUTIC 3 she is joined in that role by Wong Fei Hung’s father (who has invested in a steam engine to power his medicine factory). Wong Fei Hung’s encounters with western technology form an important theme in the first 3 films of this franchise. I will comment more on this leitmotif, and others, in my next blog.
*“Dressed in Victorian clothes, educated in England, she (Aunt Yee) both introduces a kind of Confucian screwball comedy into the series and mediates Wong’s encounter with Western modernity…” p. 146, Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters