The sort-of real life story of Ma Wing Jing, a wholesome country boy with stunning fighting skills who comes to Shanghai to escape poverty, only to end up befriending a charismatic but shady mob boss and losing his soul in the process, has already been the subject of two high-profile films, Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung and Corey Yuen’s masterpiece, Hero. Though that kind of half-folk, half-historical tale is bound to reappear on film every two decades, one would not expect it to be, as Once Upon in Shanghai is, scripted and produced by gargantuan and insanely prolific money-grabber Wong Jing, while being directed by edgy, often pretentious arthouse darling Wong Ching Po. And yet here it is, starring young upstart Philip Ng in the Ma Wing Jing role and the underrated Andy On as the mob boss, with prestigious action directing by Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung Yan, and a sturdy supporting cast of legends : Sammo Hung as the benevolent master of the community Ma Wing Jing moves into, as well as Yuen Cheung Yan, Fung Hak On and Chen Kuan Tai as a trio of rival mobsters called the Axe Fraternity.

This is the simplest, most straightforward telling of the tale yet. Ma Wing Jing is introduced standing up to bullies on the boat to Shanghai. That boy scout earnestness and courage doesn’t waver throughout the film. In the previous films based on that story, Ma was drawn into the mobster lifestyle and almost lost his soul ; none of that here. However, the loss of darked shades in Ma Wing Jing is compensated in the way his relationship to mob boss Long Qi (Andy On) is portrayed. Long Qi is first shown coldly slaying a night club owner ; he is said to have once been a hopeful country boy like Ma, and to have quickly risen in the ranks of the mob by demonstrating extreme ruthlessness and an almost legendary fighting ability. But after meeting and befriending Ma (whose upright honesty amuses him to no end), the mob boss softens, almost reconnecting with his inner naïve country boy in a series of playful montages that see him and Ma sparring, dancing, jumping around and eating hot dogs while marvelling at how “hot and salty” they are (we’re not kidding, it’s all there). There’s great chemistry between Philip Ng and Andy On, much more in fact than between Ng and Michelle Hu as a drab, naggy, altogether unappealing love interest. Shades of Chang Cheh’s classic bloody bromances here.

After that the story quickly devolves into a standard turf war plot, with the Axe Fraternity plotting with the dastardly Japanese in order to take back control of Shanghai from Long Qi. Wong Jing’s simplistic writing and crowd-pleasing proclivities however do not as expected collide with the arthouse, often pretentious leanings of Wong Ching Po. On the contrary, they complement each other in an oddly compelling, often unwittingly funny way. Even the pared-down sets with precious few extras populating them are a good meeting point for Wong Jing’s penny-pinching and Wong Ching Po’s clean and polished aesthetic. The film is shot in a near monochrome (a lot of shots are quite gorgeous), with only faint traces of colour, like Ma’s green jade bracelet, a gift from his mother with a central pearl that in a nice and stylish touch, tinkles anytime he punches someone. The fighting, while superbly choreographed, is shot with extreme undercranking often followed by momentous slow-motion. It is a style that annoys us more often than not, but here works fairly well, as Wong Ching Po works in quite a few pleasing tracking shots, even though they’re mostly fake (the camera often pans behind a pillar or a crate, allowing for an unseen cut). Ng and On are formidable martial artists whose fights against each other click in a very special way. Here’s hoping they get many more opportunities to spar onscreen. But the show-stopper here is a vengeful swordfight where Ma takes on many opponents at once among a forest of stone pillars.

This is Philip Ng’s first leading role : he fares impressively in the fights, and while he isn’t exactly a tornado of charisma, and comes off as a bit weak in drama, he has a welcome and endearing ability to turn on the goofy, such as in a scene where he sings a hilariously drunken and out of pitch love song to Michelle Hu. Andy On, often typecast as sullen henchmen, is a formidable and stylish presence here, and manages to sell even the more ridiculous lines his character is saddled with ; he keeps for instance, comparing himself to his pet tiger : “we’re both wild beasts” he intones. But of course you are. Sammo Hung is underused both as a dramatic actor (his character just stands on the sidelines with some sort of dark past barely hinted at) and as a fighter. Still, his presence, like that of old pros Chen Kuan Tai, Yuen Cheung Yan and Fung Hak On (who all get in, albeit briefly, on the action) serves as a nostalgic booster to a likeable but simplistic film.

Long Story Short : A muddled but endearing combination of Wong Ching Po’s arthouse pretentiousness and Wong Jing’s commercially savvy, crowd-pleasing simplicity. ***1/2

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