Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Posted in Reviews by - January 23, 2016
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Another remake of Chang Cheh‘s The Boxer from Shantung, this moody fu noir is set in China, 1930, on the brink of Japanese invasion, and focuses on the struggles of migrant workers in the slums of Shanghai. Ma Yongzhen (Phillip Ng) is the rural simpleton with fists of fury who befriends intrepid young gangster Long Qi (Andy On) in a bid to secure work for him and his buddies at a local nightclub. Long Qi faces usurpation from a trio of rival Chinese triad leaders – played with a nostalgic nod to the 1970s by aging legends Yuen Cheung-yan, Fung Hark-on and the original boxer from Shantung, Chen Kuan-tai – who side with Japanese criminals to support their opium racket. Despite starting the film as a cold-blooded aristocrat with a penchant for brutal violence and a pet tiger for company, Long Qi reveals himself to be something of a patriot, warming to Ma’s optimistic spirit and eventually leading a charge against Shanghai’s criminal fraternity.

Director Wong Ching-po flexes his artistic muscles in a number of distracting ways, most notably in adopting a monochrome palette throughout and with long sequences of overwrought melodrama. Even a brutal knife attack is shown in slow motion, with a full orchestra set to emotional overdrive. There are some smart stylistic nods to the vacuous glitz of Shanghai’s colonial period – the nightclubs, fashions, cars and jazz – but, adversely, there is also very little grit in the slum sequences where romance blossoms and cuddly Sammo Hung is on hand to protect the peasant folk and serve up delicious hot meals. Phillip Ng steps up to the mantle of chopsocky hero very well, conflicted by a no-fighting obligation he has made to his mother back home, made tangible in the form of a jade bracelet (a bit like Bruce Lee‘s necklace in The Big Boss). He repeatedly breaks this promise throughout the film, especially when he slices up a whole gang of Japanese baddies in a sublime one-take sequence towards the end. Andy On is also good, even if he looks more like he should be in a boy band than a boxing ring.

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