Once Upon a Time in Shanghai ★★★

A remake of Chang Cheh's The Boxer from Shantung with nods to Bruce Lee as well (most specifically Fist of Fury, which was also set in 1930s Shanghai). Written by Wong Jing, action by Yuen Woo-ping, with a decent co-starring role for Sammo Hung. Director Wong Ching-po shoots it in a dusty gray miasma (apparently he wanted to make in in black and white, but Wong Jing wouldn't let him because money, and this was as close as he could get) which mostly just looks gross. The fights are great (Philip Ng as the hero Ma Yongzhen and Andy On as the suave gangster Long Qi, roles played by Chen Kuan-tai and David Chiang in the original), with some neat innovations. In Boxer, Chen announces his awesomeness by punching a guy in the fist. Ng does the same here near the climax (I'm pretty sure the fist he punches is Chen Kaun-tai's in fact, playing a bit part) and then one ups it by punching a dude in the foot, with bone-shattering special effects. Problematic though is the way Wong speeds up the motion of the fights. Not just because it's fakery (digital fakery being the hallmark of 21st Century Hong Kong cinema), but because the herky-jerky motions looks so ugly (it's hard to describe, I've never seen anything like it. It's almost like a frame-rate stutter. It actually made me wonder if it was a problem with the digital print we got at the festival.)

So what we have in the end is a neat homage to some 70s classics, with some excellent star performances and great action buried beneath a hideous color palate and possibly intentionally glitchy movements. Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist covers much of the same territory (and I'm pretty sure uses at least one of the same sets), but with smoother fights and an almost-too-gorgeous glossy visual style. YMMV, I guess.

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