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The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has had the effect Hong Kong action buffs devoutly wished: It’s brought some of the genre’s exemplars out of the vaults and into American theaters. Whereas Crouching Tiger’s rise was very much a critic-driven phenomenon, however, the press wasn’t even notified before Tsui Hark’s 1991 marvel, Once Upon a Time in China, opened unexpectedly last Friday. And this week’s debut of the director’s latest film, Time and Tide, is getting only a bit more ballyhoo: It’s being screened too late for reviews in weekly papers. (Oddly enough, the three films are being distributed by different arms of the same company: Sony Classics, Columbia Repertory, and TriStar.) Time and Tide is reportedly an eye-popping foray into Wong Kar-wai territory for the eclectic Hark, whereas Once Upon a Time in China is the film that revived the period kung-fu spectacle (thus anticipating Crouching Tiger). Set in late-19th-century China, Once Upon a Time pits surgeon, herbalist, and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (played by Jet Li, who subsequently turned up in such Hollywood films as Romeo Must Die) against European imperialism and its Chinese lackeys. Hark, born in French-ruled Vietnam, takes the film’s politics fairly seriously, but—characteristically—both plot and theme are upstaged by delirious set pieces that use dancing cameras to capture kung-fu choreography. This is one of the filmmaker’s most consistent efforts; unlike some of his lesser movies, it doesn’t become tedious or risible when none of the characters are spinning in midair. Still, the highlight is unquestionably a dazzling fight scene staged on multistory ladders in a warehouse; it’s the reason why longtime Hark fans weren’t so impressed with the treetop battle in Crouching Tiger. —Mark Jenkins