Yongzhen is one of China’s favorite Robin Hood-ish gangsters. Film and
television versions of his story (including the Shaw Brothers’ Boxer from Shantung) often transplant Ma
to the wild and woolly Republican 1930s, but the first film version of the
Nineteenth Century bumpkin-turned racketeer was the 1927 silent Shandong Ma Yongzhen. A new supercharged
remake/reinvention of the 1972 Shaw Brothers fan favorite takes even more
liberties with Ma’s story, but if he has any surviving descendants, they are
not likely to object to the heroic portrayal of the martial artist in Wong
Ching-po’s Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (trailer here), which releases
today on DVD and BluRay, from Well Go USA.
Yongzhen came from the dirt poor provinces to make his fortune in Shanghai.
Ironically, he has exactly the sort of skills to make it in the go-go city, but
he promised his sainted mother he would never become a gangster. To remind him
to temper the power of his iron-fist, she gave him his only valuable
possession: a jade bracelet.
in a slum watched over by the kindly Master Tie, Ma quickly gets a lay of the
land. Through a series spectacular sparring sessions, Ma earns the trust and a
legit job from Long Qi, a gangster-club owner more closely resembling the
historical Ma Yongzhen. The brash Long Qi has taken over a sizable portion of
the Ave Gang’s territory, but he is asking for trouble with his outspoken anti-Japanese
sentiments. When the Axe Gang and the Japanese form an alliance, Ma will be
pulled into the fray to protect everyone halfway decent.
OUATIS is definitely
following the buddy movie playbook, but screenwriter Angela Wong somewhat
inverts the formula, by having the naïve country boy stay strong and start to
reform the hedonistic crime lord. Even so, the narrative is rather simplistic,
but the film’s grit and tragic vibe will appeal to genre audiences nonetheless.
martial arts sequences choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping and Yuen Cheung-yan are
obviously the important thing here—and they deliver. Fortunately, Philip Ng and
second lead Andy On have the skills and bearing for the often brutal but wildly
cinematic beatdowns. There is no question they can carry this stuff off.
Veteran martial arts stars Sammo Hung and Chen Kuen-tai (the 1972 Ma Yongzhen)
lend the film further street cred.
working his way up through a series of increasingly prominent supporting roles
(Lionel, the undercover cop stepson in From Vegas to Macau), Ng gets his shot playing the hero here. His turn as Ma is
not exactly a bases-clearing homerun, but Ng is not bad at all. He has a strong
presence, develops some reasonably believable romantic chemistry with Michelle
Hu’s Tie Ju (the somewhat judgmental daughter of Master Tie), and excels in the
fight scenes. Although Andy On goes a bit over the top with Long Qi’s
outrageous preening and weird bursts of laughter, it sort of works anyway,
because this is a genre that rewards attitude, which he brings in generous
most action enthusiasts will want to see more of Ng and the more established On
after Wong’s Ma Yongzhen reboot, which says a lot. If you are looking for impressive
martial arts action and can easily overlook some predictably excessive
anti-Japanese propaganda, than it is a safe bet. Recommended for martial arts
and historical gangster fans, Once Upon a
Time in Shanghai is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.
Labels: Andy On, DVD, Ma Yongzhen, Martial arts cinema, Philip Ng, Sammo Hung