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The protagonist is Doctor Wong Fei-hung (played by the inimitable Jet Li), philanthropic physician of the Po Chi Lam clinic and the greatest warrior of Real Life 1875 Canton. Possessing a skill in the Martial Arts that was matched only by his kindness and mastery in healing, Master Wong was respected by friend and foe alike, protecting the citizens of Canton from the predations of The Triads and the Tongs and the greedy Western invaders who sought to exploit China's great riches. He inherits his father Wong Kit Ying title as one of the Ten Tigers of Canton, the greatest warriors of Southern China.
The story begins when the love of his life, "13th Aunt" (not by relation, but because their fathers are sworn brothers) returns from a 3-year education in England. Though the perspective and charm derived from her western education fascinated Fei Hong, an awkwardness formed in their relationship as it clashed with his traditional eastern values. On that same day, a young unemployed-acrobat, Lian Kuang (played by Jackie Chan film veteran Yuen Biao), wanders into Canton seeking instruction in the martial arts. Instead, he blunders into and insults the Sha-Her ("Sand-River") Gang, a vicious Triad that terrorizes and fleeces the innocents of Canton, already destitute from simultaneous British and American exploitation.
A great warrior though Wong Fei Hong may be, he can only watch helplessly as the western government indiscriminately guns down countless innocent Chinese at an opera performance in an attempt to apprehend assassins targeting Western dignitaries. He is then framed for the crime by the Sha-her Gang, and confined to his clinic by his own government so he could heal those injured and dying from the massacre. Now unhindered, the Sha-her Gang start to kidnap scores of women to be sold into prostitution in America, and gain the alliance of Yen Jer Dong, a martial artist whose skin can be broken by no weapon. With Lian Quan as his apprentice, Master Yen seeks to break out of poverty by challenging Master Wong, to establish his school in Canton through the fame and respect of defeating the Tenth Tiger.
It is in this desperate climate that Doctor Wong Fei-hung must fight not only to save the people of his country, but also to reconcile with what it means to be a idealistic and heroic Chinese warrior in an increaingly cynical and westernized world.
Once Upon a Time in China revitalized not only Jet Li's (then) flagging career, but revitalized credibility in Kung Fu and Wuxia cinema as a medium that is just as capable of conveying an emotionally rich and politically relevant story as any European Arthouse film, through a combination of great cinematography, acting and story. This paved way for future films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Five sequels were made from 1992 to 1997.
For tropes specific to individual installments, visit their respective work pages.
- Acrofatic - Porky, one of Wong's disciples, though he hates the nickname and insists he's normal sized.
- Anti-Villain - Master Yen Jer Dong of Movie 1 and General Nar-Lan Yuen-Shu of Movie 2.
- Badass - Every warrior in this series, especially Wong Fei-hung himself.
- Battle in the Rain - Master Wong Vs Master Yen.
- Cannot Spit It Out - Eventually averted in that Fei-hung is finally engaged to Aunt 13 by the sixth film, wedding ring and all.
- Chaste Hero - Wong Fei-hung is endearingly prude and shy when it comes to matters of love.
- Chivalrous Pervert - Lian Quan towards Aunt 13, much to Master Wong's annoyance.
- Curb Stomp Battle: Pretty much whenever Wong Fei Hung fights. Even the big final fights are one sided with the opponent usually getting only one or two hits in.
- Dogged Nice Guy - Lian Quan, and to a lesser extent Master Wong.
- The Fool - Lian Quan in the Second Film.
- Genre Busting: It showed the world that Kung Fu cinema is a genre that is more than capable of being artistically poetic, emotionally deep and politically relevant as any European art film.
- Good Shepherd - The Jesuit priest is genuinely well-meaning, and even helps Wong Fei-hung when his own people are too afraid to come forward as witnesses against the Sha-Her gang and Taking the Bullet for him when the American Big Bad tries to have him shot.
- Guns Are Useless / Guns Are Worthless: Mostly averted, with historically (and heartbreakingly) accurate results.
- Historical In-Joke - Wong Fei-hung helps out a certain Doctor Sun (i.e. Sun Yat-Sen) in one movie.
- The repeated failure to get a successful photo of Wong Fei-hung, since no actual photographs of him exist. Allegedly.
- Honor Before Reason - The heart and soul of this series.
- In a Single Bound - A common staple of combat in the series, though Lian Quan in particular is fond of this.
- Jabba Table Manners - The Sha-Her gang slurp down pork and guzzle wine after joining the American invaders by selling out the women of their country to slavery.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold - Porky-Rong, and also Lian Quan in the first film.
- Kick the Dog - Second movie opening scene.
- More like Roast the Dog! And not in a cooking sort of way.
- Kissing Cousins - Averted in that Wong Fei-hung and Aunt 13 are not blood related relatives.
- Lost in Translation / Significant Haircut: Yen Jer Dong's foe cutting his queue (braid) during his introductory fight. In the 1870s, the Queue was still a cumpolsory part of Chinese national identity, and cutting one (much less your own) was tantamount to treason.
- This makes Yen Jer Dong's desperate flailing of rage and pain as his OWN Queue was cut in his final battle with Wong Fei-Hung doubly heartbreaking; here we watch the absolute dissolution of a warrior and a man, desperately trying to cling hold onto what little cultural-pride China has left to protect.
- The Messiah - Doctor Wong Fei-hung.
- Made of Iron - Master Yen Jer Dong's "Iron Shirt" technique hardens his skin with chi to the extent that no blade may pierce him. Master Kwan in the second film seems to have also mastered this except that all he had was an iron breastplate concealed beneath his tunic.
- Martial Pacifist: Doctor Wong Fei-hung again.
- The Missionary - One shows up in the first movie. He ends up being the only man in the entire community willing to testify against the Sha-Ger gang.
- My Kung Fu Is Stronger Than Yours
- Noble Profession - Wong Fei-hung is a doctor. Also, the Jesuit priest from the first film is genuinely well-meaning, a rare thing for a Westerner in the series.
- The Other Darrin - Lian Quan from the 2nd movie onwards. Buck-Teeth-Soo changes actors after being Put on a Bus.
- Parasol of Pain - The Western Umbrella is Wong Fei-hung's signature Weapon of Choice. This is Truth in Television, as the real Wong Fei-hung created an entire martial art centered on this item, which has become quite common in 1890's China.
- Pressure Point - As a doctor versed in Chinese Medicine, Master Wong is also a master of accupuncture, and it is this knowledge that allows him to break through Yen Zher Dong's seemingly invincible "Iron Shirt Chi Gong" in their final battle.
- The Quisling - Both Aunt 13 and Buck-Teeth-Soo are regularly accused of being this by their fellow Chinese.
- Reality Ensues - Whenever a gun is comes into the narrative in this series, it's ruthless and unfeeling roar instantaneously shatters the romantic-heroism of Martial-Arts combat.
- Scenery Porn - Tsui-Hark's cinematography invokes a nostalgic-romanticism reminiscent of films like Gone with the Wind, wherein each freeze-framed shot resembles a living painting.
- Serious Business - Lion dancing in the third film.
- Shown Their Work / The Cast Showoff - Those are real martial arts moves being bandied about by Wong Fei-hung and his opponents.
- Smug Snake - Chiu Tin-bak from the third movie.
- Theme Music Power-Up - "To Be A Hero" plays whenever Wong Fei-hung takes on the forces of evil in said-movie-series.
- Tsundere - Aunt 13 in the later installments.
- Warrior Poet
- Worthless Foreign Degree - The British ambassador declines Wong Fei-hung's offer of medical assistance to the people injured by the White Lotus cult because he distrusts Chinese medicine, instead calling on the Western-trained Doctor Sun. This is later subverted when the ambassador comes to respect Doctor Wong, offers honest appreciation and admiration for his skills after Sun requests that he use his acupuncture skills to make up for a shortage of medicine.
- Wuxia - The first in a movement of politically-relevant martial-arts films.