Yes you read the title correctly. This post is going to cover all 6 films in the “Once Upon A Time In China” series. This might partly be because I am lazy, but also because I was fortunate enough to watch them over two weeks as marathon set of movie watching. Also, what I want to say about these movies is applicable to all six.
All 6 movies are centred around the Chinese Folk Hero Wong Fei-hung. I will leave it to you to investigate him further, but he is a real historical figure that has been used in many films and novels.
Mostly set in and around Boxer Rebellion era china (the exception being part VI which takes place in Western-era USA), the films are actually quite politicised (dealing mostly with the effects of the various Imperialist powers active in China at the time), but for me things are never pushed into outrageous jingoism (some of the acting from the non Chinese cast does leave a little to be desired mind you). At the core though, director/producer Tsui Hark is really most interested in entertaining rather than pushing any political rhetoric down the audiences throat.
What really works for me in all the movies are two distinct properties. Firstly, there is the sense of family. Wong is surrounded by acolytes and friends, and it is this sense of an extended family which pervades all the films. Some characters come, some characters go, some even return, but at all times you know they are all there for each other all the time. Secondly, whilst there is a fair amount of martial arts action in them all, each film would stand on its own without that aspect.
Superstar Jet Li plays Fong in parts I, II, III and VI (with Vincent Zhao ably filling in for IV and V), and he carries off the required techniques for the role admirably – obviously the action is his forte, but he is called on to show humour and pull off a certain Grandeur and Status befitting of the character.
Now I would be lying if I did not say that the first and second parts are the superior movies. That is not to say that there is a process of diminishing returns here – I think you can take something from each film. Maybe part IV is only a continuation of part III, but it still highly entertaining.
I would highly suggest that if I have piqued your interest, that you try and watch the first two movies, and if you fall in love with the characters, then the final four will bring plenty of smiles to your face.