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  Beijing Scene

Once Upon a Time in China
Starring Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Yuen Biao
Directed by Tsui Hark, released 1990
Duration: 2 hrs, 45 minutes

When maverick Hong Kong director Tsui Hark chose former martial arts child prodigy Jet Li to play Cantonese folk hero Huang Feihong, critics carped Li was too young and unworthy of the role. Now if his predecessor, they said, the legendary Bruce Lee, were alive that would be another story. Tsui didn't listen and the finished product, Once Upon a Time in China, went on to become one of the most successful Hong Kong kung fu movies of all time. Benefiting largely from Tsui Hark's inventive flair for special effects as well as Li's subtle performance and gravity-defying martial arts moves, it reintroduced the genre to modern Asian box offices and became the first of its kind to gain serious critical attention.

Once Upon a Time in China was a remake of a hugely successful Hong Kong film series that aired from 1949 to 1970. The series immortalized the tale of real-life Cantonese doctor and martial arts hero Huang Feihong. Set during the turn of the century, the film takes place in southern China where an uneasy standoff between East and West is unfolding. Meanwhile, government corruption, triad activity and illegal smuggling rings for coolie labor and prostitution run rampant. The influx of firearms to the region has undermined the importance of martial arts. Unwilling to watch silently the erosion of his own culture, Huang uses his martial arts training to actively defend the Chinese tradition, going head-to-head (or more accurately, foot-to-head) against foreign aggressors. As if that weren't enough, he also finds himself faced with the tasks of disciplining his three insolent students, battling a rival kung fu school and rescuing his lover Shisan Mei.

Although Once Upon a Time in China is set more than 100 years ago, it is very much a flick for the 21st century. Both this film and its sequel explore the issues of Chinese national identity and the relationship between colonial powers and Hong Kong. And Li's sheer screen presence shines through in a role that he was clearly born to play.

Any Given Sunday
Starring Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid
Directed by Oliver Stone, released 1999
Duration: 2 hrs, 45 minutes

Any Given Sunday tackles one of America's greatest obsessions, professional football. Although neither the National Football League nor its trademarks appear, there are no illusions about the movie's target. The story is about a team named the Miami Sharks (read Dolphins) and its aging 38-year-old quarterback (read Dan Marino). Most American sports fans, even casual ones will get the point. However, that might be part of the movie's problem as the only audience that can probably understand it on the first viewing is an American one. You can miss a lot if you aren't paying attention as football references and chaotic in-game shots flash by. Also, if you didn't understand the mechanics of the game before, don't expect try to use this movie as a primer. But having said that, the movie has a lot going for it. Yes, sometimes it resorts to cliches, and no, it won't change the sports movie genre, but it does take an unscathing look behind the scenes of professional sports. Crooked doctors, egos, racial politics and discussions about money versus loyalty are all part of the mix. And, in his usual, no-holds barred style, Oliver Stone doesn't put on the kid gloves when handling controversial themes.

You'll be happy to know that Al Pacino, as the slightly long-in-the-tooth football coach, doesn't rely on his trademark explosive outbursts. Instead, he plays a quieter role, more like a man who vaguely knows that he's over-the-hill instead of one who's furiously fighting it. Jamie Foxx, whose previous claim to fame was in the short-lived black-comedy television show In Living Color, also gives a notable performance as a young quarterback who gets his first chance at the big time after veteran player Dennis Quaid is injured.


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