In 1930’s Shanghai crime and corruption rule all. Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng) is a young laborer who has journeyed to the city from the slums in the hope of making a better living. When he meets Long Qi (Andy On), a gangster tied into the drug trade with a strong hold over Shanghai, his martial arts skills impress him and lead to a fast friendship between the two. As Long’s enemies seek to eliminate him and destroy his business, Ma is pulled into the fight of his life.
‘Once Upon a Time in Shanghai’ features a disappointingly hollow plot, but some excellent fight scenes. The story itself is not bad, but it just isn’t given much support through the writing. It relies a bit too much on action and atmosphere rather than character development or plot depth. Most of the relationships developed during the movie end up feeling superficial if not forced.
The story itself is fairly predictable and simplistic. There are no big twists and much of what happens has been done before in this type of genre piece. The thing that sets this film apart from these past films is how well made it is. It looks beautiful on the screen.
There is a real noir atmosphere to the film. The entire thing is shot using a chromatic that appears almost entirely black and white with just a few splashes of color. While this does make some scenes into a treat for the eyes it does lose some of its appeal after awhile.
The best thing about the film is without a doubt its excellently choreographed fight scenes. Yuen Woo-Ping has done an impressive job creating some amazing sequences, though he does favor choppy camera work and slow motion techniques a bit too much. Both Philip Ng and Andy On give excellent performances with fighting sequences that harken back to the days of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
‘Once Upon a Time in Shanghai’ is a good martial arts film. It doesn’t offer much in terms of story, but its cinematography and choreography are both top notch. The movie is definitely worth a watch for fans of good martial arts movies.