Directed by Ching-Po Wong
Written by Jing Wong
China & Hong Kong, 2014
Inspired by the Shaw brothers classic Boxer from Shantung, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is an exceptional action film with the right doses of heart and humour. Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film is about the arrival of country boy with incredible talent in martial arts and his rise within the local criminal party. Though not rife with originality, the film packs a punch thanks to the charisma of the leads and the impressive choreography.
Visually, the film evokes a throwback to a bygone era. Though not shot in black and white, the film adopts an extremely low saturation to evoke a sort of faded nostalgia. This works best in the film’s action sequences, allowing the actor’s movements through space come to the forefront. Black and white within the action genre has always felt comfortable in how it compliments stylization and it only amplifies the almost musical artistry of the proceedings. The action sequences are worth the whole experience, in particular those between Andy On and Philip Na, who bring equal amounts of athleticism and humour to their sequences together.
While the film is predictably and unobtrusively nationalistic in its ideology, it is not a detraction to the film. Contextually, the film is demonizing the Japanese and the Chinese people willing to betray their fellow countrymen to join forces with the political and economic enemy. This is dealt with quite a heavy hand and creates a real chasm between the real villains and the misguided but ultimately good hearted criminals. On a wider level, however, there is a beguiling power to this broad strokes propaganda. It is no accident that actor Philip Na, playing the film’s star, is heavily reminiscent of Bruce Lee, as both share the same martial arts style and the film makes direct allusions to Lee’s most famous scenes.
This reference evokes Lee’s popularity, in particular with marginalized African American audiences who embraced him during the 1970s. A rare non-white leading man, Lee evoked cool and grace — and perhaps most essentially, his most common enemies were institutions as much as people. Much like the heroes of Bruce Lee films, Philip Na is not just fighting a man or a gang, but a structure of oppression. While the film supposes the corruption come from Japan, at the end of the day Ma is not a free man and is at the mercy of the social structures of his own society. While the film is very importantly set before the Communist Revolution, before the people were “saved”, the reflections of structural violence in the film resonate more deeply than “China good/Japan bad”.
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai does not transcend the trappings of it’s genre but succeeds at hitting the right notes. Both self-referential and nostalgic, the film is also something of an Easter Egg hunt with many familiar faces of the genre making appearances. This self-referential nature could be distracting but instead adds suspense to fight sequences, as we watch and wait for familiar faces to burst into action. Best scene with an audience or on a big screen, the film also has some incredible set pieces that are stunningly rendered in the low-saturation cinematography.