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HTS Moderator , Reviewer
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Title: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

Movie: :3stars:
Video: :4stars:
Audio: :4stars:
Extras: :1.5stars:

HTS Overall Score:70

Once more into the fray with another Asian cinematic release from Texas based company Well Go USA. This time instead of a period epic, we have a 1930’s gangster movie set in Shanghai. Much like some of the stylized gangster flicks of America we have a very upbeat and heavily stylized film that mirrors that sort of jazz and pizazz of the early 20th century. Ma Yongzhen (Phillip Ng) is a country bumpkin who moves to Shanghai to get somewhere in life and make his fortune. With his two brothers in tow Ma leaves his family and promises his mother that he will be careful. Arriving in the famed city of opportunity, the boys soon learn that not everything is as it seems. The people of Shanghai live in fear from the Chinese triads and little is left over for the peasants. Not only that, but a new power has come to town in the form of Long Qi (Andy On). Tearing power away from the Triads, Long Qi is taking over the city piece by piece, with just his tenacity and bare hands.

Setting up shop amidst the peasants, Ma Yonghzhen soon finds out that staying out of trouble is harder than he thought. Especially when everyone wants to fight him. In a fit of anger over the drugs running through the city, Ma stands up to Long Qi and actually goes toe to toe with the invincible gangster. Realizing the similarities the two share, Long Qi hires Ma on to work for him. Soon the pair becomes inseparable and the two test each other’s martial arts skills constantly. When two people hang around each other long enough they start to rub off on the other and that’s just what happens. Long Qi starts to show glimpses of humanity once more, showing kindness when he normally would not have and enjoying more in life than just beating the tar out of someone. Ma starts to see the harsher side of life and comes to realize that not everything is as hunky dory as it was in his old village. All of this changes, though, when the Japanese, who are already gaining a foothold in China, team up with the Chinese Triads in an effort to purge Shanghai of Long Qi’s dominance. Now Ma Yongzhen has to choose between his love of his host’s daughter, His best friend, and the invading Japanese forces that are slowly infiltrating the city in a battle for the dominance of Shanghai.

I love Asian cinema, and I love how Asian cinema has become so very diverse in its film making. Once upon a time American cinema was heavily influenced by Franco Nero, Sergio Leone and others like him, now China has also tried to imitate those Italian gangster flicks such as “Once Upon a Time in America” with a martial arts flair. “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” is nowhere as epic or impactful as the above mention film, but it certainly has a flair that is all its own and gave me a grin all over my face during the short run time. The heavy use of stylized martial arts and the unique picture quality can be a bit wonky at times, but once you get used to the flair it becomes rather engaging. The plotline is the weakest part of the film here and is the biggest disappointment in the batch. There’s plenty of plot lines left unanswered and some inconsistencies that seem to be left unaddressed, such as Ma’s refusal to be a gangster, yet he works for one and soon becomes best friends with him. It makes you scratch your head a bit and go “huh”? The nationalist take was really kind of un necessary as the Chinese Triads made a very formidable enemy to begin with and it seemed to be thrown in because it’s just the “in” thing at the moment.

Still, the movie was a solid amount of fun, with TONS of martial arts action. In fact, that’s the saving grace of the movie as the incredible amount of hand to hand combat took your mind off of some of the more obvious plot contrivances. Phillip Ng has usually been a background character in most martial arts films in recent history, but here he gets to shine as the leading man and does a decent job as the slightly goofy Ma Yongzhen. He adds a silly tone to the movie that makes you giggle every time you see that country boy dopey face that he puts on. Not to mention that the man really knows his martial arts. The fights tend to be just as stylized as the image is and we have plenty of wirework and some meh CGI effects to amp up the volume from just regular combat (Asian cinema isn’t exactly known for fantastic CGI). The best pairing of combat actually comes between Ma and Long Qi, especially with the way the two just flow on screen. Ironically Andy On and Phillip Ng are both good friends in real life as well as in the film. Andy On wasn’t a martial artist before he started getting into movies and taking over the role of Jet Li in “Black Mask 2: City of Masks”. Now he trains in several styles and both he and Phillip train together in Wing Chun regularly. Ironically he looks like he’s been doing it his whole life and the real life comradery between himself and Phillip adds to the believability of the fights as well as the relationship.


Not Rated by the MPAA

Video :4stars:
“Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” comes with one of the more interesting images I’ve seen in a long time. The film is NEARLY completely devoid of color, giving it an almost black and white look. There are still hints and splashes of color throughout the film. A green sign here, a light pink tinge to a jacket, The paradise club sparkles with bright lights and some solid coloring coming through and the jade green bracelet on Ma’s wrist all come through nicely, but the rest of the time it’s almost a perfect black and white. Interestingly enough, it’s not like the color was just splashed in there, as you can see hints of color along the cheeks and even the blacks aren’t completely black, they tend to feel ash grey as the color is just BARELY there for the movie, hiding in plain sight. The detail is still quite good as you can see everything, even in its desaturated state. The clothing, the sparkling of the jade bracelet, it’s all there. Sometimes the stylized image looks a tad soft and can detract a little bit, but it’s not a major issue.

Audio :4stars:
The disc comes with both a 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless track in both English as well as Mandarin. A/Bing between the two tracks I find that the English track is quite good, but the dub is rather mediocre compared to the Mandarin track. Dialogue on both tracks is excellent as you can heave every word spoken, even during the frenetic martial arts action. LFE is impressively powerful and surges very aggressively through the mix. That heavy mid bass punch is there in spades, knocking you back in the chair with each and every punch. Surrounds are pretty solid, but I felt they weren’t as active for an action/martial arts mix as I would have liked. The aggressive track almost made up for it, but I kept noticing the lack of presence in the rear channels, robbing the film of some of its directionality.

Extras :1.5stars:

• The Making Of
• Trailers

Overall: :3.5stars:

“Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” is a bit of an uneven film, with points that make you check your watch, but the copious amounts of martial arts action more than makes up for the deficiencies in the plot. The fun stylization, the hard hitting punches made me grin from ear to ear while watching. It won’t win any martial arts movie of the year awards, but it most certainly will make for a fun rental for those who like to see men go toe to toe and duke it out. The tech specs on the disc are very solid (minus the anemic extras) and will disappoint no one. Recommended as a rental.

Additional Information:

Starring: Phillip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung
Directed By: Ching-Po Wong
Written By: Jing Wong
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 AVC
Audio: ENGLISH: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Mandarin DTS-HD MA, English, Mandarin DD 2.0
Studio:Well Go USA
Rated: NR
Runtime: 95 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: January 13th 2015

Buy Once Upon a Time in Shanghai On Blu-ray at Amazon

Recommendation: Decent Rental

More about Mike

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Mike, I know you're all about these martial arts films, so to see a score of "only" 3 stars makes me a bit skeptical. I am all for a bunch of martial arts, but does it REALLY make up for the lack of plot story?

HTS Moderator , Reviewer
5,742 Posts
Discussion Starter #3
Mike, I know you're all about these martial arts films, so to see a score of "only" 3 stars makes me a bit skeptical. I am all for a bunch of martial arts, but does it REALLY make up for the lack of plot story?
take into account that I ALMOST made this a 3.5 and that i've had to adjust my ratings scores over the years...but that feeling of it "hooking" you just wasn't enough IMO. it's still a fun rental, I just wouldn't give it a blind buy without a rental first.

The plot is a bit hinky, but Its still got some good points, especially the comedy between the two leads. The film almost delves into full blown comedy a couple of times. And yes, the action does fill in a lot of the gaps.. there's a LOT of action in the movie (although on a side note, it is sad to see Sammo Hung slowing down in his old age... but then again he IS even older than Jackie Chan is and in his mid 60's if I remember correctly)
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