The opening scene in “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” lands with a hard punch and never looks back. Grabbing your attention from the get-go, the film deliberately kicks its martial arts old-style and that approach works amazingly and entertainingly well.
Directed by Ching-Po Wong with screenplay by Jing Wong, “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai,” is set in 1930 Shanghai. The film follows the story of Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), who journeys by boat from his small hometown to the much larger Shanghai, in the hopes of finding a better life. Scenes before his boat docks show how skilled he is in the martial arts, particularly when using his right fist. Warned by his mother not to use that fist in all its might unless absolutely necessary–it becomes his secret weapon.
As depicted in the film, Shanghai in the 30s was presided over by different rival gangs. Through some incredible feats as well as a quick mind, young gang lord, Long Qi (Andy On), rises very quickly to the top. He comes into contact with Ma in his night club and while there is an initial competition of wits and physical prowess between the two, they come to appreciate each other’s skills. What the future holds for both is what takes up much of the remaining screen time.
Philip Ng and Andy On are as close to perfect casting as one can come. Surprisingly, Ng was born in Hong Kong and raised in Chicago. Considered a master in martial arts, Ng really looks like a 30s-style fighter and his likeable personality comes through…even in subtitles. On, originally from Providence, Rhode Island, is extraordinary in portraying a man whose face can turn on a dime…from amiable and friendly to cold and sinister. Although not formally trained in martial arts, he more than holds his own against Ng. As good as these two men are in scenes with others, it’s when they are together that magic happens. The two have genuine chemistry and they do come across as brothers. Their fighting scenes will astound, but their quiet conversations will have you laughing, too.
Fight action choreographers, brothers Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Woo-ping, are legends in martial arts circles and they do not disappoint. To say the fight scenes are amazing is putting it mildly. It some instances you can actually hear the crunching of bones. The sequences are remarkably fast, but balletic as well. At times it’s often difficult…in a good way…to know where to focus your eyes first.
Director Ching-Po Wong has chosen to shoot “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” in black and white tones. This definitely puts the film in a 30s mode and give it a sense of “realness.” The lack of color works perfectly with the background and the costumes. While the fighting is front and center, “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” also delves into the uneasy relations between China and Japan and does so in a very interesting manner.
A martial arts flick might not be for everyone. But if you were a fan of Bruce Lee, some of the more recent Jason Statham movies or just like something different in your action movies, “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” is meant for you.
“Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” is a 2014 release and is making the rounds of various film festivals. In Washington, DC, it was part of the Freer Sackler Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.