Starring : Philip Ng, Sammo Hung, Andy On, Michelle Hu
Director : Wong Ching-Po
Release Date : 9 Jan 2014
THE movie trailer seemed so promising, what with scenes depicting old-school martial arts and pure kung fu that suggested styles in the league of Ip Man and Bruce Lee flicks.
Philip Ng, who plays the protagonist in this show, may (still) not be a household name, but his bona fide kung fu skills certainly herald the emergence of a new-age actor who could hold his own with solid fist-fights, punches and kicks.
Perhaps I’m a purist, which is why I’m least impressed by movies where exponents fly high up in the air, glide expertly from one treetop to another, and have their swords weave magically in and out of the thick of trees, nor am I inclined to stunt- or acrobatic-based kung fu.
Yet, despite the excitement from watching the trailer, the movie ended up a letdown with little but important connecting details sorely missing (like the under-developed background of each character). It didn’t help that the storyline lacked body or depth, either.
Set in the 1930s against the backdrop of glitzy and prosperous old Shanghai, a righteous young labourer Ma Yongzhen arrives from his rural hometown of Shandong together with two friends, hoping to make it big. He possesses nothing more than a mighty right fist that could injure someone with a single blow.
Ma’s mother presents him a jade bracelet as a reminder that he should refrain from using his fist, but the advice goes unheeded in the end when he exacts revenge against the Japanese, who slowly invade the city.
The storyline isn’t much to shout about, either, and even the title lacks freshness, given there was a television drama of the same name previously. (This is apparently a reworked version of the 1970s Shaw Brothers movie Boxer From Shantung.)
At the end of the day, a hero saves his people under times of duress and oppression, and such shows never fail to induce a sense of patriotism, while also inciting abomination against any form of foreign occupancy.
But it’s lacking in certain aspects compared to say, Ip Man and its sequel, where the two movies were loosely built on the real-life story of the late Wing Chun grandmaster, which I have yet to tire of watching.
While the presence of the charismatic Donnie Yen had made Ip Man engaging, a lot was also down to the plot being gripping enough for us to connect emotionally to the show.
With Once Upon A Time in Shanghai, though, certain lines of dialogue were weak while some of the acting was not up to par. I didn’t see enough of a 1930s Shanghai to draw me into that era, save for a nightclub and brief glimpses of a cabaret singer, and the two main triads that were in control of the city.
One triad (called the Axe Fraternity, which gangs up with the Japanese for the opium trade) seemed cocooned throughout the film in its little den, so audiences don’t really know much about these drug lords except that they are obviously self-serving and can’t put up a fight without swinging their axes!
What’s also disappointing to note is that Sammo Hung, whom I thought would carry a major role, plays a minor one, flexing his kung fu chops so insipidly that there was hardly any impact. Despite all the killings, there wasn’t any bloodshed (only shirts stained a diluted red), which really makes things superficial.
I think the kung fu scenes are worth watching, particularly those by Ma and even his ally/good friend Long Qi (Andy On). Ma shines best with the quality of fight sequences between him – using just his bare hands – and the villains. There were also some twists I did not expect that countered the largely predictable nature of the scenes.
Unfortunately though, that was as far as the excitement went, as I was less than fulfilled when the end credits rolled. Things could have been different if the storyline was meatier and more memorable. And who knows what might have been had the performances been better and the characters explored to their full potential?