Motifs in the Once Upon A Time In China series

A neat directorial strategy that Tsui Hark uses during the first 3 films of the Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) series is that he builds up a series of leitmotifs and artistic reference points that link the films together. This lends cohesiveness to the audience’s viewing of the experiences of the main characters of these films, and lends weight to certain themes that Tsui has chosen to explore. After OUTIC 3 there were to be a further 3 films featuring Wong Fei Hung and his companions, but I think the series runs out of steam from this point forward so I am confining my discussion in this blog to the first 3 films only.

Some of these leitmotifs and connecting themes are broad, overarching narrative and set devices. All 3 films are set against interesting historic events, mostly to do with western incursions into China. Sets featuring bamboo are also featured in key fight scenes in all 3 films. The choreography of the showdown between Iron Robe Yim and Wong in the wool store in OUTIC makes heavy use of bamboo ladders. In OUTIC 2 Wong and General Lam weave in and out of bamboo poles in their first fight, and are surrounded by bamboo scaffolding in their second. In the 3rd film, the final climactic Lion Dance competition takes place on and around a giant bamboo tower.

An important narrative line that is built upon from movie to movie is the romance between Aunt Yee and Wong Fei Hung (see my last blog). This is one of the narrative elements that gives heart and feeling to these action movies. A creative device that Tsui uses in scenes that depict the development of this romance in all 3 films is the use of shadowplay. In all 3 films, there are scenes showing the sihllouetted shadows of Yee and Wong projected onto the walls. These scenes are always ones of emotional intimacy between these 2 characters. In the first film Yee is measuring Wong for a suit while she is simultaneously dropping hints that she feels for him and is imaging what it might be like to stroke his head. In the second film the shadowplay depicts Yee’s fantasy of dancing in the arms of the man she loves – this fantasy being a welcome respite from a lesson in self defence that Wong is briskly dispensing. In the 3rd film the shadowplay shows Wong stroking Yee’s head in reconciliation after one of their rows. Wong (especially) and Yee are constrained by accepted standards of etiquette in their society that preclude them from being publicly demonstrative with each other (indeed, it takes a whole 3 films for a deeply enamoured Wong to be able to cup Yee’s face in his hand even in private). Tsui indicates the social constraint this couple is functioning within by showing some of their tenderest moments not directly to the gaze of the viewer but indirectly in shadow and through sihllouette. 

This use of shadowplay is somehow very consciously filmic of Tsui and shows how discriminatingly he made certain creative choices in the making of these films. As well as filmic techniques, he also references traditional theatrical forms. Lion dances and Chinese Opera are prominently featured in 2 of the 3 films. The 2nd film contains a lengthy fight scene during which Wong takes on the ravening White Lotus mystical sect. The choreography in this fight scene takes certain ritualistic and mystical tenets as its central conceit. I feel that ritual and theatre are closely connected anyway, and this particular fight scene has a very Chinese Operatic feel to it. So it could be said that Tsui has used traditional theatrical forms and aesthetics in all 3 of these films. This is further supported by the fact that Iron Robe Yim is shown busking in the 1st film, and the second film features singing by a street performer in an inn.

Another performative device that is repeated is the use of stock characters that will be familiar to kung fu movie fans, particularly in the form of the over the top villain. In the first film there were the Shaho gangsters, lead by a scarred and flamboyantly disgusting thug. The second film had the aforementioned mystical sect, lead by the backflipping and high kicking Priest Gao Kung. The third film has the satin bedecked and uproariously laughing Chiu Tim Ba. Out of laziness I am now going to quote from a blog I wrote earlier: “The villains in these films are easily recognisable characters. They are cliched but still used very effectively within the context of these movies…These villains are played to the hilt – snarling, declaiming, gesticulating. They belong to the melodramatic traditions that are an innate part of the cultural baggage of martial arts films.” In this blog I mention the fact that as well as these villains, Wong Fei Hung is also often opposed by antagonists (Iron Robe Yim in OUTIC, General Lam in OUTIC 2, and Clubfoot in OUTIC 3). I distinguish antagonists from villains because they are portrayed differently from the stock characters of the bombastic villains in that the antagonists are allowed more dimensional characters. But this pairing of villain and antagonist is another pattern that Tsui uses in these 3 films. (To see what I wrote on distinguishing anatgonsist and villains in these films please see my blog )

This referencing of theatrical forms and its use as a bridging motif in these films does not just lend the series some cohesiveness, but also helps Tsui to create the overtly theatricalised atmosphere in which kung fu films must exist. Kung fu films have no truck with reality – the characters (including the larger than life stock characters) are liable to take to the air, perform supernatural feats or break into virtuosic displays of movement at the drop of a hat. The paradox that Tsui faces in these films is that he has set himself the creative challenge of making honest to god kung fu movies, with all the flamboyant bells and whistles business that entails, while setting them against the background of readily identifiable historic settings and events. Tsui creates the theatrical atmosphere where the unreal feats of his “Chinese Rambo” (as he refers to Wong) and his opponents can be allowed to happen, without undermining or being undermined by his real historical settings, by importing and embedding in his films real Chinese performative traditions. The featuring of traditional Chinese performance and ritualistic forms also helps Tsui carry out another area of investigation – the clash between Western and Chinese cultures.

“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

Western and Chinese cultures meet harmoniously in the character of Aunt Yee, even if Tsui positions these elements so that they clash less harmoniously in other parts of the films. Aunt Yee is very comfortable in embracing western culture and especially western technology. She is particularly interested in cameras – both still and moving. This forms a nice link between Tsui’s exploration of Western culture and his referencing of filmic and performative traditions. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt comments on the scene where Wong Fei Hung, his students and father watch footage of themselves doing kung fu for the first time:

“As Wong’s father, Wong Kei-ying / Huang Qiying wonders at his son’s phenomenal speed and (more importantly) whether it is genuine, he anticipates the musings of many a kung fu cultist to come. This is a characteristically witty piece of revisionism, synthesising the Cantonese legend and the 1990s action superstar in order to retrospectively create the first kung fu film. But Master Wong’s excursion into movie-making also suggests the martial arts legends had a complex relationship with cinematic technology from the start.” p. 21

Other scenes that show Yee mediating Wong’s encounter with the West include her measuring Wong for a Western style suit in OUTIC, and coaching Wong and Leung Fu through a Western style meal, replete with unfamiliar cutlery and food, in OUTIC 2. This second scene happens on a train at the start of the film, and Wong is also shown arriving on a train at the start of OUTIC 3. In this film, his father is eager to show off his latest acquisition – a newfangled Western steam engine, that will power the mass production of Chinese medicines. Although he has enthusiastically recognized and incorporated Western technology into his professional life, Wong Kei Ying experiences a challenge when he is asked to soften his adherence to traditional Chinese values by approving his son’s engagement to their relative by marriage, Aunt Yee.

Another harmonious meeting between Western and Chinese cultures is shown in OUTIC 2 when Wong meets up with Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the 2 find ways in which to appreciate and combine Western and Chinese medicine techniques. Perhaps the most destructive encounter with Western culture and technology that the Chinese characters have is when they encounter the greed of Western imperialist agents, and the killing power of their guns. The commercial interests of the West are depicted by Tsui as being a sinister, dehumanizing influence – their human agents inspire and sometimes facilitate the most dastardly schemes in these movies (although Tsui is fair enough to show that their agendas are always further facilitated by corrupt, venal, or weak Chinese).

These are serious themes, and what is even more sobering about watching them is that history proved that the lives of many ordinary Chinese really were undermined by Western capitalists and the power plays of a failing Qing Dynasty. But OUTIC, OUTIC 2, and OUTIC 3 are movies, and Wong is a “Chinese Rambo”*. Wong always finds a way of avoiding or overcoming Western guns and bullets, and resists the temptation to abandon his core values. As Bey Logan says in his commentary, the message of the films is that although the Chinese will change due to the influence of western technology / modernization, the Chinese sense of ethics and honour needn’t change.

OUTIC 3 ends with a fired up Wong ticking off a Qing Dynasty official for his part in subverting a Lion Dance competition for political ends. The first film ends with a scene showing Wong wearing the Western suit he was so dubious about earlier in the film. A further concession to Western culture is indicated by the fact that he is being photographed wearing the suit. However, Wong has not capitulated entirely to the lure of the West – he receives obeisance from a new disciple in the manner as befits a thoroughly traditional Chinese sifu. Regardless of any superficial Western styled trappings, Wong Fei Hung retains the value system that will sustain him through the challenges presented in the next 2 films.

*Quote from Tsui Hark from an interview with Tsui Hark, Special Features, Hong Kong Legends DVD release of OUTIC 3

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12 Responses to Motifs in the Once Upon A Time In China series

  1. I always thought there was a very strong political subtext to the films – more than was overtly suggested within them, that is. 10 years prior to the ’97 handover (so roughly 4 years before the first OUATIC) the Film Censorship Bill was passed in HK, and I think it caused a lot of unnerving within the industry, in so far as a pre-cursor to the expected censorship of the Goverment post-handover.

    I think film makers, especially those like Tsui Hark, were commenting on this and the expected ramefications, in their films, by constraining it within other context.

    It is overt in the sense that the culture clash with westerners and technology etc is the cause of certain problems, yet – particularly in the first one – it is the Chinese officials that are seeking to constrain Wong and co. within his own country, putting him under house arrest and then jailing him for defending his rights. In the film it is at the behest and benefit of the westerners, but the perpetrators can’t be mistaken – and these are members of the government who have the same freedoms and traditions as Wong himself. Towards the end when Commissioner Lee instead tries to aid Wong, we see that though he is a man in power, he is actually quite useless in the real fight – and yet Wong allows him to “save face” and exaggerate his role in the victory; because he knows that it doesn’t actually change the events that transpired, and the outcome is more important than the impression one man is given. (I personally interpret this as an allegory to freedom of speech and the gentle art of misdirection).

    Interestingly, The Master, a film made previously to OUATIC but not released until after the success of the first film (re-named Wong Fei Hong ’92 and containing a Po Chi Lam in America, run by his sifu instead of his father) also sees Jet in a similar role – a modern Wong yet still a fish out of water in the western world, so I think it’s a theme Tsui is definitely fascinated by, and Wong Fei Hong seems to be the character that epitomises the ensuing conflicts.


    • Yes – I think Tsui is quite fascinated by this theme. Apparently he studied film in the US as a young man so has a lot of personal experience of negotiating the differences between Western and Chinese culture anyway.

      I haven’t had time to do much background reading for many months now but I used to go to the State Library of Victoria and dip into critical writings about martial arts films. There is a school of critical thought that thinks that Hong Kong’s New Wave directors (of which Tsui was one) were definitely addressing Hong Kong’s anxieties pre-handover in the 90s.


  2. Yeah, he (Tsui) was in the US in the early 80’s – the films he made (Zu: Warriors etc) when he got back were massively influenced by the special effects used in US films, which is one of the reasons he earned the ‘Spielberg of Hong Kong’ nickname.

    I have a tonne of early 90’s reading material – a couple years worth of Bey Logan’s old magazine Impact, and some HK fanzines (my personal favourites are the proper martial art magazines with articles – I have one that credits Jet Li and the movie Shaolin Temple with saving the actual Shaolin Temple. I bought anything that mentioned his name, pretty much). Anyway, the point > when all my stuff isn’t in moving boxes, I’ll have a dig around for some of the more interesting ones and scan them into PDFs, if you’ve an interest.


    • I definitely have an interest! (Although there’s no rush so don’t put yourself out). You also mentioned a documentary you have a while back – I would loove a copy of that too.

      Although I have loved kung fu movies for many years, it’s only in the last few that I have allowed myself to give in and embrace my obsessive fandom so I am trying to build up some background reading…



  3. No dramas, it’s mostly a matter of locating them all and going through to find the best articles. I scanned a few this morning and converted them to pdf docs, since I knew where these particular magazines were (most of my boxes with this stuff are stacked in a built-in robe, so while it’s quick once I locate them, it’ll take me a while to get to them all!)

    The three I did this morning are from ’96-99. Two are from kung fu mags (including the feature I mentioned before, on how Jet saved Shaolin Temple, the other feature didn’t scan as well owing to the background, but should be readable when enlarged). The other one is from a little booklet that came with an issue of Impact and has a decent interview – back then Jet’s name was always written as “Jet Lee”, as they thought no one in the western world would be able to pronounce “Li” correctly! It was only after his role in Lethal Weapon 4 that they started using ‘Li’. (I have a OUATIC baseball cap that I ordered years ago from a memorabilia store in HK, and even that has “Jet Lee” embroidered on the back).

    Anyway, this is the folder link (on Media Fire) and I’ll drop you a message or comment whenever I add anything. The doco is in one of those boxes, which I did look for but haven’t found yet – I know I still have it, so as soon as I find it I’ll figure out a way to get a copy available.


  4. Ah, that’s awesome! Monkey memorabilia is one thing I found surprisingly hard to come by – I had a very small metal tin at one stage, but I’m not sure if I still do. In the early 90’s I found a store in Queensland that carried a bit of HK memorabilia, so that became relatively easy to find for a while (my prized possessions are original HK one-sheet cinema posters for OUATIC and The Tai Chi Master, still unframed and rolled up in tubes 15+ years later, though).


    • I found the wastepaper basket in a $2 shop somewhere. I should explain that it features cartoons of the character, not pictures of the actual actors from the TV show we all grew up on.

      I need a clock and, as wierd as this may sound, I have my heart set on finding a kung fu movie themed clock. I just can’t believe that they don’t exist, lurking away in a gift shop in Springvale or Footscray (are you a Melbournite?)


  5. I’m in little ol Adelaide – not quite born (that was Sydney), but definitely bred!
    I’ve seen some nifty gadgets with kung fu themes, usually fairly sleek looking but faceless practioners integrated into almost everything from tape dispensers to incense holders, but clocks seem to be one thing that remain a little more on the tackier side (usually just plain, cheap wall clocks with some pseudo-philosophical “martial” statement, or a large, low quality print of Bruce Lee’s face).

    I don’t know how you feel about ninjas, or whether you’re looking for something with a little more esteem or charm, but I’m kinda partial to this shuriken-shaped clock with a swinging ninja!:


    • That clock is great! Love the swinging Ninja as a pendulum!

      Most martial arts movie fans would find this hard to swallow but I actually don’t like Bruce Lee. Find him quite repellant to be honest. So his is the last face I would want to see glowering at me when I look to see the time.

      If you are not a Melbournite then you wouldn’t be aware that Springvale and Footscray are 2 suburbs that have huge populations of Asians. I work near Springvale and am working my way through the stock of old Shaw Brothers films in the local DVD stores.


  6. I grew up watching Bruce Lee films, thanks in part to my brother and friends of ours from down the street who had recently moved from Laos. So, his films are kind of at the root of my obsession. In saying that, I am not what I would call a fan of his in particular. In truth, I find his films rather boring (as a fan of martial art films, it’s almost taken as a sacreligious thing to say, but they just don’t engage me on the same level as many others). I can’t put it down to the era because a few of my favourites were made around the same time (films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin outstrip any of Lee’s films in every way, in my opinion).

    The family from Laos are also responsible for my obsession with ninjas – they would often watch ninja movies in original language and without subtitles, so I had to rely on whatever they told me to understand what it was all about. The mother – bless her – convinced me that a properly trained ninja really could perform all the feats in the movie. Thus, I spent my childhood believing that it was possible to jump from the ground on to rooftops etc.

    Shaw Brothers made some great films. Sometimes the action sequences feel a little laboured in comparison to what I’m used to in more modern films, but there are some true classics in their filmography.


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