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Body count: 3
Entertainment factor: 4/5
Eek factor: 0/5
Ooh factor: 4/5
Ouch factor: 1/5
Film Elements
  • gravity-defying martial arts
  • period
  • restaurant ravage
Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung is one of my favourite historical personages to study, second maybe only to Okita Souji. Wong Fei Hung was a martial artist, a healer, and a revolutionary. He mastered the Hung Ga style of martial arts and both taught and treated people at his clinic, Po Chi Lam, in Foshan, Guangdong province. I was first introduced to (the film versions of) his legacy through this movie. I get a rush whenever I hear “Nan er dang zi qiang”.
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At the beginning of the movie, tension has been growing between the people of Foshan and the visiting Westerners from America, Britain, and France. Wong Fei Hung has been asked to recruit and train a militia. At the same time, Siu-qun (whom he respectfully refers to as Aunt Thirteen) returns from America with her head full of Western ideas.
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Between the local gangs and the American slave-traders, Wong Fei Hung has his work cut out for him. Fights constantly break out, and while he (sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, by his students) manages to keep the peace, everyone in the city is too afraid of the gangs to stand beside him, leaving him with no witnesses to bring to trial. If he wants to stop the renegade martial arts master (and the renegade martial arts wannabe buffoon), he and his students are on their own.
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The film’s main conflicts can be expressed in pairs: Tradition versus modernization?  Propriety versus love? Guns versus martial arts? To some extent, East versus West?

Critics worried that Jet Li was too young to play a sage character like Wong Fei Hung, but he nails it. One of the things I enjoy most about this movie is his poise. He always looks totally in control and ready to move. His character is kind, generous, honourable, wise, and even funny. Most of all, he’s believable.
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His students have personalities of their own, too. Lam Sai-Wing (“Porky” or “Butcher Wing”) and So (“Bucktoothed So” or “Beggar So”) have become legends in their own right, and they take the stage without stealing the show. Leung Fun gets on the nerves a bit, but he’s likeable in his own way. Siu-qun isn't afraid to put on a disguise and get things done, either.
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The Westerners tend to be cardboard caricatures, but then again, they’re not the focus of the film. Rather, their influence is. I appreciate that the main conflict is not simply East versus West. Westerners do bad things; so do the Chinese. Chinese do good things; so do the Westerners. In fact, one of the (I feel) most touching moments of the film involves a local evangelizing Jesuit priest. The priest gives Wong Fei Hung a flier, saying that he should follow Jesus. Wong Fei Hung, frustrated and hard up for witnesses, replies “I arrested a criminal today. Will Jesus be my witness?” Later on, when Po Chi Lam is burned, no one (as usual) will step forward as a witness—except the priest.
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The martial arts here are not the most realistic. The movements are real, but the way they’re applied are not. (In a real fight, a kick to the head makes about as much sense as a punch to the foot.) Don’t get me wrong—I have no complaints about the fight scenes. They’re just the right amount of fanciful (some wirework, but not too much), masterfully choreographed, and wonderful to watch.

One of the best scenes in this film is not a fight scene, but a “don’t fight” scene (one of the best, in my opinion) in which Wong Fei Hung and his students grapple weapons out of everyone’s hands and throw them down, shouting “Don’t fight!” These scenes are pretty common in martial arts movies as the teacher has to reign in his overenthusiastic students--but I've yet to see another film where the teacher has to fend off forks while, in the background, his students are going at it with violins and a cello.
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In the final showdown, Wong Fei Hung dukes it out with the bad guys while balanced in a precariously interlocked group of ladders. I never would have guessed that Jet Li was injured during the filming of this scene, and everything from the waist down had to be done with a double.
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The romantic tension between Wong Fei Hung and “Aunt Thirteen” may make viewers uncomfortable unless you realize that she is not actually his aunt. The two are not blood-related in any way. Siu-qun’s father is the sworn brother of Wong Fei Hung’s grandfather, making a romantic relationship between them culturally a no-no, but not biologically iffy by any means.
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Wong Fei Hung is a masterpiece, easily one of the best martial arts films of all time. I cannot recommend it enough.