Welcome to the Shanghai of the 1930s! A city full of luxurious nightclubs, Japanese spies, Kung Fu heroes and classy music. That sentence basically sums up the core of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, which appears to be a remake of the 1972 Hong Kong film Boxer from Shantung. It is a film that allows Philip Ng to show off his fighting skills, alongside the impressive Andy On and living legend Sammo Hung.
Ng portrays the naive but super strong Ma Yongzhen, who arrives in Shanghai to find a life where dreams are made of. Unfortunately, reality is tougher than the stories make believe and he soon ends up living in the slumps of the city, where a retired Kung Fu master (Sammo Hung) lives with his daughters. Ma Yongzhen quickly crosses paths with the ruthless, equally skilled Lung Chat (Andy On), with whom he becomes friends. From then onwards Ma lands into a world of nightclubs, Japanese spies, and most of all, a whole lot of butt kicking.
Philip Ng has the lead role as the man with a fist of fury and certainly isn’t misplaced in a film that reminds us of the Hong Kong Golden Age of cinema from the 1980s. His fighting skills are very impressive and so is his Bruce Lee haircut. His character certainly is a tribute to Bruce Lee and the story, and sometimes even the character’s movements, remind us of Lee’s films. Andy On is equally impressive with his fighting skills. The film shouldn’t be watched because of the acting or plot, which are both ok but nothing special. But in a movie that has fight choreography by master Yuen Woo-Ping, you of course watch it for the fights.
And these fights surely are spectacular. Especially Philip Ng vs. Andy On is an awesome showdown, but the rest of the action is also topnotch. I would’ve loved to see more of Sammo Hung in the film, but he sadly doesn’t do that much as one would hope for. The film has a stylish look; filmed in a grayish filter with some color highlights here and there. This gives the film a nice, be it kind of rainy/misty, atmosphere. The music also helps creating this atmosphere, with a nice song that fits the film.
After the screening of this film at The International Film Festival of Rotterdam, I surely had a nice surprise. While leaving the theatre, a very familiar face suddenly caught my attention. None other than Philip Ng himself was standing right in front of me. Stylishly dressed in smoking, he unfortunately had a tight schedule and left before I could have a word with him. But it surely was awesome to see the man I had just seen on the big screen right there in the flesh! It is one of those elements that makes film festivals like this absolutely worthwhile.
All in all, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a film that should definitely be seen by Hong Kong Cinema and kung fu fans. Enough action to satisfy the action hungry film fan, even though the plot isn’t much. But ah well, in being in the style of those 80s’ kung fu films, that is not really needed anyways.