Here’s how the Once Upon A Time In China series ranks from worst to best. Any fan of the martial arts film genre and especially of the Hong Kong variety knows the name Wong Fei-hung well. The legendary healer, master of Hung Ga kung fu, and Chinese folk hero has been the subject of innumerable movies. While their stories are largely apocryphal to Wong’s actual life, the legend he left behind is what the adaptations are truly inspired by, and few have been as popular as the Once Upon A Time In China movies.
The first Once Upon A Time In China debuted in 1991, directed by legendary filmmaker Tsui Hark with the then still relatively new Jet Li portraying Wong. The film was a colossal hit, and also popularized George Lam’s rendition of “A Man Of Determination” as the definitive take on the theme song associated with Wong as a kung fu movie hero. Two direct sequels would swiftly follow in Once Upon A Time In China II and Once Upon A Time In China III.
Li’s departure from the franchise ahead of Once Upon A Time In China IV led to Wong being played by his Fong Sai-yuk co-star Vincent Zhao for the next two films. Li would later return as Wong for the final chapter of the series, 1997’s Once Upon A Time In China & America. While the franchise would occasionally have its rockier moments, the Once Upon A Time In China series is nonetheless the arguable modern face of Wong Fei-hung’s big-screen adventures and utterly essential viewing for martial arts fans. Here is the Once Upon A Time In China series, ranked from weakest to strongest.
6. Once Upon A Time In China IV (1993)
Vincent Zhao gives it his all as Wong Fei-hung in his first time in the role, but despite some of the early promise he exhibits as the lead of the martial arts movie, Once Upon A Time In China IV is a major step down from the previous trilogy. For Once Upon A Time In China IV, Wong returns to Beijing for a Lion Dance competition and ends up battling the Red Lantern Sect. He also meets the sister of his love interest Yee Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan), May, a.k.a. “14th Aunt” (Jean Wang) in recognition of their distant familial ties, and her romantic feelings for Wong bring to light one of the biggest issues with the movie. Released in June of 1993, just four months after its immediate predecessor, Once Upon A Time In China IV plays less like a passing of the torch from Jet Li to Vincent Zhao, and more as a weaker rehash of elements from its predecessors with less impressive kung fu action scenes. In the role of May, the Lion Dancing competition, and the Red Lantern Sect, so many elements of Once Upon A Time In China IV have a direct and much better-executed parallel in the previous three movies. It doesn’t help that the lower budget and watered-down sense of scale compared to the previous Once Upon A Time In China movies make Once Upon A Time In China IV feel far more basic and routine.
While the Once Upon A Time In China movies always dabbled in wire-fu, Once Upon A Time In China IV is at once utterly enamored with it while not knowing how to handle it with any sense of weight or fluidity. Not a single martial arts fight scene in the movie is as memorable as those of the original Once Upon A Time In China movies, and despite Zhao’s physical talents, the wire-heavy kung fu fight choreography just doesn’t have the same magic as Wong’s previous adventures. Once Upon A Time In China IV didn’t resonate at the Hong Kong box office and marked a rocky start for Zhao as a leading man. Sadly, Once Upon A Time In China IV is ultimately the series’ low point in just about every way.
5. Once Upon A Time In China Once V (1994)
After the letdown of Once Upon A Time In China IV, things would start to improve in the series with the next installment Once Upon A Time In China V, though still not by much. The movie sees Wong and his friends battling pirates, while Rosamund Kwan also returns as Yee, which forms a love triangle between her, Wong, and May. For what it’s trying to do, Once Upon A Time In China V is marginally enjoyable. Released in November of 1994, Zhao had more time to grow into the role of Wong as a formidable martial arts master compared to the rushed nature of his entry into the series, and for his second time as the revered kung fu folk hero, he gets the job done adequately if not spectacularly. Still, many of the same problems that were the downfall of Once Upon A Time In China IV are still present here, including its diluted tone from the epic, grand historical adventure of the first three movies in the series.
The fight scenes also go overboard into outright silliness with their over-embrace of wire-fu. Among the six films in the series, Once Upon A Time In China V isn’t the worst, but it’s certainly the most generic, and certainly one of the weaker efforts of Tsui Hark’s career. Despite its financial failure, Zhao returned in the Wong Fei-Hung Series, running from 1995 to 1996. The kung fu-driven franchise made a massive comeback, albeit one that was also the series finale, with Once Upon A Time In China & America, in which Jet Li returned as Wong. When it comes to Zhao’s career, the Once Upon A Time In China series proved an ill-fit for the leading man. Western fans of Asian cinema would do better to give 2010’s True Legend a look to see Zhao’s talents really shine, and with much better wire-fu execution, to boot.
4. Once Upon A Time In China III (1993)
Once Upon A Time In China III was another dynamic Wong Fei-hung adventure, though a slight comedown from its predecessors. Traveling to Beijing with Yee for a Lion Dance competition, while a foreign plot to assassinate Emperor Li Hongzhang (Ge Cunzhuang) is unfolding. Once Upon A Time In China III is as gorgeously shot and staged as its predecessors, opening with a Lion Dance in the Forbidden City with a new and arguably even more potent rendition of “A Man Of Determination.” Li’s also as strong as ever as the Bruce Lee-level warrior Wong in his third performance as the folk hero in less than two years. Once Upon A Time In China III also marked the series’ long incoming first appearance of Wong’s equally famed father Wong Kei-ying (Lau Shun), while Li’s own former stuntman Hung Yan-yan also adds to the martial arts exuberance as Wong’s new student Clubfoot.
The only thing really holding Once Upon A Time In China III back from fully hitting the same high mark as the two ahead of it is the general feeling of its grandiosity not being quite as pronounced. The first two Once Upon A Time In China movies were epics in the true sense of the term. Once Upon A Time In China III strives and mostly succeeds in doing the same, but without fully capturing the same vigor or finesse as an epic movie built on Chinese martial arts should. If it doesn’t stick the landing quite as gracefully as the two films ahead of it, Once Upon A Time In China III is still loads of action-packed fun with Jet Li still in command as Wong and a marvel in the film’s martial arts fights.
3. Once Upon A Time In China & America (1997)
Jet Li didn’t make his proper Hollywood debut until 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, but he was nonetheless facing adversaries in America a year earlier in Once Upon A Time In China & America. For the sixth movie in the series, Wong and Yee travel to San Francisco to visit the American Po Chi-lam clinic run by his student “Bucktooth” So (Power Chan), only to become embroiled in a Wild West-style conflict. Though Li’s return as Wong came in a shorter and less large-scale movie than his prior Wong Fei-hung adventures, under the direction of Sammo Hung, Once Upon A Time In China & America still effectively blends its kung fu movie roots with the fun of a Western. Wong even goes on a side mission during a brief bout with amnesia, being taken in by a local Native American tribe and coming to their aid in a tomahawk battle.
The ever-amazing Hung Yan-yan also returns as Clubfoot, and brings his own astonishing magic to the movie’s kung fu fights. The film was a swan song of sorts for Sammo Hung, with Once Upon A Time In China & America being Hung’s last movie as director until 2016’s The Bodyguard. As what would ultimately be the franchise’s finale, Hung, Li, and the entire cast nonetheless took it out on an engaging and fun East meets West high note with Once Upon A Time In China & America.
2. Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
Jet Li was still very new to the game as a martial arts movie star in 1991, and he found what would become perhaps his signature role in Wong Fei-hung through Once Upon A Time In China. Running his Po Chi-lam clinic in Foshan, Wong enters the conflict to stop the local Shaho Gang, who work with local Western officials in a human trafficking operation. Wong also finds himself forced to face his kung fu rival “Iron Vest” Yim (Yen Shi-kwan), who is determined to defeat Wong to establish his reputation in Foshan. Under the direction of Tsui Hark, Once Upon A Time In China is gloriously pristine. The opening training montage of Wong training his students on a beach, set to “A Man Of Determination,”, already establishes the movie’s hero as a legend even to those unfamiliar with his story.
Li was clearly carrying himself differently in his debut as Wong. The still young rising star embodied both a truly astounding exponent of kung fu as well as the upstanding, stalwart Wong as a warrior and healer of great honor. Deferring to the cultural norms of his day in his mutual but forbidden romance with Yee Siu-kwan, referenced as “13th Aunt” due to being the daughter of his grandfather’s brother, their feelings for each other are still felt through Li and Kwan’s understated chemistry. As a movie about a literal kung fu legend, Once Upon A Time In China is as much of a classic as they come. The martial arts fights are as graceful as they are powerful, but nothing tops Wong’s final showdown with Yim, which cemented Li’s growing Hong Kong stardom. With countless Wong Fei-hung movies in existence, Once Upon A Time In China is among the big-screen adventures that best honored him.
1. Once Upon A Time In China II (1992)
A sequel arriving not even a full year after its predecessor and surpassing it so effortlessly isn’t a common occurrence, but Once Upon A Time In China II soared right past the expectations set by the original. For the sequel, Wong and Yee Siu-kwan travel to Canton for Wong to give a lecture on Chinese medicine, but the city is in turmoil with both foreign occupation and the rise of a nationalist group known as the White Lotus. Li had already grown extremely comfortable as Wong, handling his fight scenes and attempts to be a diplomat between two cultures even more naturally than before. Once Upon A Time In China II was also notable for the villainous appearance of the future star of the Ip Man movie series, Donnie Yen.
Playing local military leader Nap-lan Yun-seut, Yen was still on his way up the Hong Kong action movie ladder. As Wong’s rival, Yen was already exuding the energy he would later bring to his career as the best antagonist of the Once Upon A Time In China series. While Once Upon A Time In China II is as sweeping in its epic scope and filled with action as the original, Yen’s bo staff battles with Li are its high mark. As Nap-lan, Yen even wields a unique weapon of war in a tightly-rolled cloth that in his hands can becomes a killing tool of deadly precision. The cheer-inducing moments of Wong soaring into combat and the quieter scenes of Wong’s relationship with Yee, are everywhere in Once Upon A Time In China II, and earn it the distinction of being the best chapter of the Once Upon A Time In China series.
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