Review: 'Once Upon A Time in China: The Complete Films' an Exceptional Release from Criterion

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday December 6, 2021

To talk about Tsui Hark's "Once Upon A Time in China" and the ensuing franchise is to bring up a filmmaking culture that's still — by my estimation, at least — largely ignored by American film culture. Tsui is among Hong Kong's most notable, successful, and critically acclaimed filmmakers. Not only that, but he's at least partially responsible for the notoriety of many of America's favorite foreign action stars, including Jet Li and Jackie Chan. He's been dubbed as the Steven Spielberg of Asia, although that's a designation frequently used by American writers to describe the influence he has had and continues to have overseas.

That's why it's a great pleasure to report that the "Once Upon A Time in China" series, a hugely successful and important film franchise in China from 1991 to 1997, has received the top-line treatment from The Criterion Collection with a box set that compiles all six films in the series. Just the inclusion of the final film, "Once Upon A Time in China and America" — directed by Sammo Hung (another remarkably talented and importance Hong Kong filmmaker) — makes this release essential viewing. But the inclusion of "Once Upon A Time in China IV," and the fifth entry, both of which haven't been readily available for home viewing in a very long time, make this release even more essential.

Although no commentaries are included, this release is still characterized by plentiful special features attached to each film. Each film also gets an independent disc, making for pleasing bitrates across all the films. Notable is here is the inclusion of the original monaural theatrical mixes for the first two films, which were not readily available and had to be provided to Criterion by collectors; these mixes make this edition a labor of love that's inclusive of collectors dedicated to genre cinema. Plus, there's a terrific new interview with Tsui that's worth checking out. Not to sugar coat things about Tsui's image, but he's notable in filmmaking because he has such a commanding way of working and getting involved in every aspect of production. That kind of workhorse nature definitely comes across even at 71 years of age.

As for the films themselves, they range from incredible to mediocre, but they're all unique in the way they deal with traditional Chinese culture interacting with Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century. Tsui's mastery of blocking and shooting big, complicated, frenetic kung-fu sequences graces each of the entries he directed with a hefty dose of grandiosity. His collaboration with Jet Li, who played the central character and hero in the first through third, and then the sixth, entries in the series, is front and center, as well. This collection is the perfect pairing of story and creators in multiple ways.

If you're a fan of genre cinema, specifically kung-fu, and want to learn about more about the film culture that promoted it to thrive in China, then you'd be remiss not to pick up "Once Upon A Time in China: The Complete Films" from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:

• New interviews with director Tsui Hark, Film Workshop cofounder Nansun Shi, editor Marco Mak, and critic Tony Rayns
• Excerpts from audio interviews with Li conducted in 2004 and '05
• Deleted scenes from Once Upon a Time in China III
• Documentary from 2004 about the real-life martial-arts hero Wong Fei-hung
• "From Spikes to Spindles" -- a 1976 documentary about New York City's Chinatown featuring uncredited work by Tsui
• Excerpts from a 2019 master class given by martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-ping
• Archival interviews featuring Tsui and actors John Wakefield, Donnie Yen, and Yen Shi-kwan
• Behind-the-scenes footage for "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Once Upon a Time in China and America"
• Making-of program from 1997 on "Once Upon a Time in China and America"
• Trailers
• New English subtitle translations
• PLUS: An essay on the films by critic Maggie Lee and an essay on the cinematic depictions of Wong by novelist Grady Hendrix

"Once Upon A Time in China: The Complete Films" is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.