Hong Kong actor and martial artist Philip Ng finally is given center stage with this rebooted look at the hero Ma Yung-Chen, who was immortalized in the 1972 Shaw Brothers film BOXER FROM SHANTUNG and then in the 1997 Corey Yuen-directed HERO.
Ma is a country bumpkin who has impeccable martial arts skills. He displays his skills on a boat en route to Shanghai. When an adult bully steals a piece of food from a young girl, Ma takes it upon himself to fight the bully and his thugs. Arriving in Shanghai, he hopes to make a living as Shanghai is believed to be a paradise. He finds a job at a local warehouse, but learns that the controllers of the warehouse, the Axe Gang, are smuggling opium disguised as tea. Upset, Ma decides to take justice in his own hands.
It is when Ma decides to destroy the opium that he meets Long Qi (Andy On), a once poor man whose fighting skills and determination has made him declare himself “the King of Shanghai”. When Ma proves himself to be a fighter in Long’s eyes, Long allows Ma to destroy the opium and soon a friendship develops between the two, much to the chagrin of the Axe Gang and the occupying Japanese, who were in cahoots with the Axe Gang in the opium trade.
Despite Ma’s loyalty and friendship with Lung, he remains true to himself and it draws the attention of the youngest daughter (Michelle Hu) of residential owner Master Bing (Sammo Hung). When the Axe Gang plans to have Ma kill Lung in an effort to take Shanghai back, Ma refuses and an all out war becomes imminent.
The character of Ma Yung-Chen is one that stands to be quite an interesting character. A country bumpkin who arrives in Shanghai in hopes to be successful, he learns that fame and success does come at a price. Chen Kuan-Tai first brought the role to life in the 1972 classic BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. Twenty five years later, Takeshi Kaneshiro played the role in Corey Yuen’s HERO, which many found less than stellar. How does Philip Ng do compare to his predecessors?
Ng, a martial artist wunderkind who has always been relegated to supporting roles as well as work as an action director on occasion, holds himself quite well in his first lead role. His take on Ma is one where he knows why he is Shanghai, but presents himself with a little bit of shyness at first. It is the gradual emergence that he is loyal not only to the the people who take care of him while in Shanghai but ultimately, he becomes loyal to China as a whole. And by the final reel, that changes Ma from shy country bumpkin with skills to a lethal fighting machine.
Andy On continues to make his name known as one of the new young action stars in Hong Kong. What is interesting is that like Ng’s character of Ma, On’s Long Qi also goes through a bit of change. He starts off as arrogant, which allows On to do a bit of acceptable overacting to start. However, as his friendship with Ma grows, Long begins to see that reality can set in as Long may not be the most powerful man in Shanghai, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. He seems to be more “human” as he soon begins to develop a brotherhood of sorts with Ma and even treat his lady love with the respect she always desired.
The Axe Gang elders are a delight to watch because they are played by veterans of the genre. As a matter of fact, call it a passing of the torch in a way as Chen Kuan-Tai, the original Ma Yung-Chen, plays one of the elders along with Fung Hark-On and Yuen Cheung-Yan. While some may feel they are wasted, when they finally unleash some action, these vets still have it and it may truly be seen as a passing of the torch. Even the legendary Sammo Hung doesn’t get any action until the third act and that’s okay as if director Wong Ching-Po intended to make this the “Philip and Andy Show”.
Yuen Woo-Ping served as the film’s action director and he makes good use of both Ng and On. The highlights of the film truly are Ng’s opening fight scene on the boat and his duel with On that becomes the turning point of the film. It should be mentioned that there are shades of Bruce Lee’s THE BIG BOSS in the film as Ma sports a jade bracelet given to him by his mother with the promise to think of the consequences of using his powerful left arm. The damage this left arm causes is seen in very high impact slow motion shots and while there is some obvious wirework for certain aspects, it can be safe to say they don’t really overtake the action here.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI is definitely a fun time pleaser. While many will feel the old veterans are wasted, it is clear they are passing the torch. Philip Ng gives an impressive debut lead role as the heroic Ma and Andy On hams it up in a fun way as the gangster who becomes friends with our hero Ma. It is safe to say these two work well together and they should be given a chance to carry another martial arts film together in the future.
Andy On • Boxer from Shantung (1972) • Chen Kuan-tai • Hero (1997) • Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014) • Philip Ng • remake • Sammo Hung • Wong Ching-Po • Yuen Woo-ping