Shanghai in the nineteen-thirties is a place that seems ripe with possibilities for any number of Chinese folks seeking to change their fortunes for the better, and so it is that thousands of them flock to the city where hard work and perseverance will win the day and provide a great life for them. Well, that's the theory, but in practice things can be rather different, as even the noblest of intentions do not see things working out quite as everyone would have hoped, and the gangster underworld are always on the lookout for new recruits. Fresh arrival Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng) is rather naïve, believing his story will be different as he has left his poor village behind in search of fortune…
But Ma has something that not everyone can boast: a fist that can kill a cow with one blow! Unfortunately, his doting mother has told him, and this was practically the last words she said to him, whatever you do, don't go around punching people's lights out with that superfist of yours, and has given him a green bracelet with a little spinning globe in it to remind him to play nice, so what can he do but honour his mother's wishes? Have a guess how far this gets him. At least he makes sure not to kill anyone, but yes, as expected, this was a martial arts movie with fight choreography by Yuen Woo Ping, that legendary figure in his field, so fans would be expecting the good stuff in abundance.
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai was not wall to wall combat, however, as director Wong Ching-Po obviously liked a spot of personality to his set-ups, and his cast could provide that, certainly. He was assisted by a script from ultra-prolific filmmaker Wong Jing, a divisive character in the Hong Kong industry thanks to his preference for crowd-pleasing crudeness, though it didn’t please every crowd it had to be said. Rest assured, his writing here was on the restrained side, apart from the occasional joke about hot dogs, perhaps because he was rewriting a beloved effort from the seventies, Boxer from Shantung, which had been awarded classic status in some quarters, therefore was perfect for making again.
It's not just Hong Kong which succumbed to remake mania after all, though they seemed to embrace it more than many other territories, but despite the title this was no Jet Li tribute, it was more of a Bruce Lee tribute, a strain of action flicks that had gathered traction in recent years and in this case played out as Ng doing a Bruce impersonation (and not for the last time), hairdo and all, only in the setting of one of those non-Bruce movies (Li had already remade Fist of Fury, after all, so maybe there was some double service happening here as far as respect went). Ng was regarded as one of the up and coming fighters who would be the next generation of Hong Kong superstars, but the fact remained he was pushing forty when he made this and was not exactly a household name across the globe.
Neither was his chief antagonist who becomes Ma's bosom buddy, Andy On, playing gang lord Long Qi who has risen from a nobody to rule over Shanghai thanks to his ability to take a beating, and more importantly, pay that beating back with interest. Initially Ma is against this man, getting into an impressive (if unevenly edited) hand to hand battle with him over the fate of batches of Japanese opium that Ma wants destroyed, but they soon see eye to eye and are fast friends by the half hour mark. Our hero’s relationship with this dangerous but oddly amiable gangster (his forced laugh notwithstanding) was the strongest element of the movie, they made for a curious couple yet when push came to shove and Ma was forced into action to use that almighty punch, it did hold a degree of emotional heft. More so than his budding romance with frosty Michelle Hu and her protective of the whole community father Sammo Hung, the latter's presence perhaps raising too many hopes for his performance and its effect on the rest of the film. Nevertheless, by no means a disaster, and actually pretty entertaining, needless monochrome effects aside.