Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (E Zhan): Film Review

See Movies, Mega-Vision Pictures, Henan Film & TV Group, Henan Film Studio
"Once Upon a Time in Shanghai"
White-knuckle action scenes belie a dearth of flesh-and-blood drama.

Newcomer Philip Ng and a cast of mostly martial-arts veterans star in producer Wong Jing’s second Shanghai-set, 1930s gangland actioner in as many years.

Throughout his career, Hong Kong screenwriter-director Wong Jing has been known for making tills ring by milking fads dry – and true to form, his latest film is a prime exemplar of that modus operandi. Wasting no time to follow his bigger-budget, Bona-backed 1930s gangland drama The Last Tycoon – which took $24.5 million during its month-long run in China just a year ago – he has now returned with a similarly-themed but modest-sized production shaped to capitalize on the recent demand for action-filled bromances, demonstrated by the critical and commercial success of films like Dante Lam’s Unbeatable.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to see scant originality in Once Upon A Time in Shanghai, whether in its title (the Sergio Leone/Tsui Hark-aping English handle is accompanied by an original Chinese version – E Zhan taking its cue from that of Unbeatable and Johnnie To’s Drug War), premise (it’s a reworking of a story twice adapted on film and thrice as a TV series) and patriotic leanings (with typical caricatures of Japanese villains probably designed to exploit the nationalist sentiments invoked by the current Sino-Japanese political standoff over the Diaoyu Islands).

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For all its flaws -- ranging from thin characterization in Wong’s screenplay to director Wong Ching-po’s heavy-handed deployment of slow-motion trickery and stirring muzak -- Shanghai flickers only through Yuen Cheung-yan’s action choreography, ably brought alive by a cast featuring the martial-arts genre’s prime upstarts or elder statesmen. With their fights basically burning expressways to each other’s (and the viewers’) skulls, Shanghai should play well to hardcore kung-fu aficionados as an exotic artifact, what with its “pedigree” of revisiting a Shaw Brothers classic (namely Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung, from 1972). It’s perhaps a raison d’etre that explains its surprising presence at International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it will make its international premiere in the Spectrum section entry next week.

Just like The Boxer from Shantung (and the 1997 film Hero, also a Shaw Brothers production), Shanghai refashions the real-life 19thcentury martial arts expert Ma Yongzhen into a fighter caught in the crossfire of the titular city’s chaotic mob wars in the 1930s. Unlike in these previous incarnations -- where the character succumbs to the temptations of power and money as the modern-day metropolis eats into him -- Shanghai’s Ma is purity personified a la Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury. Rather than going through some kind of rite of passage, the penniless country boy (played by Philip Ng, a Chicago-educated martial arts actor getting top-billing for the first time) here remains steadfastly principled, a perennial beacon of moral light burning undimmed even as he befriends the ambitious wannabe Godfather Long Qi (Andy On, Cold War). Instead of revealing some kind of evil id under his new best friend’s corrosive influence, Ma -- who continues to live in a back-alley ghetto presided over by the righteous master Tie (Sammo Hung) -- actually converts Long, with the latter slowly growing into a good gangster as they go to war against a triumvirate of old-school, opium-hawking mobsters (played by Yuen Chuen-yan himself, Fung Hak-on and Chen Kuan-tai, the original Ma Yongzhen in Boxer from Shantung) and their Japanese backers.

It’s a simplistic, wafer-thin narrative that belies an early pretense of an epic about a tumultuous episode in Chinese history (the film begins with a heavily-stylized opening sequence in which images of a ship’s hold packed with ailing and worse-for-wear émigrés play backdrop to on-screen texts speaking of people rushing to “a city of dreams” where “only the strong survive”). It’s telling that the first impression of Shanghai that wows Ma isn’t the vistas of the famous Bund; instead, he (and the viewer) is made to marvel at the city’s splendor through the very limited image of a well-attired couple kissing in a back alley as a single limousine passes by behind them. Rather than an intentional avoidance of visual bombast, this scene only serves as a template of the thinly-layered proceedings to follow. For all its bone-cracking action sequences, Shanghai is in general as undercooked as its special effects.

Just as the ample flying axes and machetes -- inexplicably, no one uses a gun in this film -- suggests a 3-D project unrealized, the half-baked story struggles to generate a complete engagement with the characters’ trials and tribulations in a merciless, fatalistic haven of criminality, and (as we now know) eventual occupation by a brutal invading power. Once upon a time, Ma Yongzhen’s story was deployed as an effective morality tale and kickstarted the golden age of the gangster genre in Hong Kong filmmaking; here, it’s turned into a spectacle and not much else.


Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Jan. 16, 2014

Production Companies: See Movies, Mega-Vision Pictures, Henan Film & TV Group, Henan Film Studio

Director: Wong Ching-po

Cast: Philip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung, Hu Ran, Chen Kuan-tai, Yuen Cheung-yan, Fung Hak-on

Producers: Wong Jing, Connie Wong

Executive Producers: Wong Jing, Wong Ai-ling, Zong Xuejie, Li Yan

Screenwriter: Wong Jing

Director of Photography: Jimmy Wong

Action Director: Yuen Cheung-yan

Art Director: Andrew Cheuk

Costume Designer: Connie Au Yeung

Editor: Wenders Li, Wong Mo-heng

Music: Anthony Cheng, Hubert Ho, So Wang-ngai

International Sales: Mega-Vision Pictures

In Cantonese

No rating, 97 minutes