ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA Saga (1991-97)

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The four Once Upon a Time in China movies from the 1990s, starring Jet Li as the legendary Wong Fei Hung, arrive on Eureka Video Blu-ray...

Tsui Hark may the most important writer-director-producer of Hong Kong cinema. He stands as a bridge from old-school to New Wave, and from East to West and back again. He first attracted the attention of audiences and younger filmmakers in the West with his fourth film as producer, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986). It was a huge hit for him at home, where it won Best Picture at the 1987 Hong Kong Film Awards and was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). But, for me, Tsui came into his own when he took over directing from King Hu to complete The Swordsman (1990).

King Hu had been the master of the Hong Kong ‘wuxia’ genre and was credited for introducing the supernatural aspect to martial arts cinema, where heroes defy gravity with the aid of wires and clever stunt choreography. Hu was set to direct only one more film, Painted Skin (1992), and in a way Tsui picked up his baton and adapted the techniques pioneered in films like A Touch of Zen (1971) and Legend of the Mountain (1979) for his own Kung fu epic, Once Upon a Time in China (1991), which he produced, co-wrote, and directed. It pretty much reinvented, or at least rejuvenated, the ‘wire-fu’ genre and also won him the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director.

The 1970s had been the international breakthrough decade for Kung fu movies. Bruce Lee’s sweaty and bloodied brand of ‘authentic’ Kung fu fighting, jostled with the heroic swordplay of the wuxia historic epics, which finally fell into a steady decline and films about street fighters and gangsters became dominant into the 1980s until Tsui Hark brought the period epic back to prominence for the 1990s once more.

You’ll find him also referred to as Hark Tsui, which is simply using the Western convention of putting family name last, which is Tsui (pronounced ‘Choy’) and his given name is Man-Kong, but he prefers to be known as Hark (pronounced ‘Hock’) which roughly translates as ‘overcoming’ or ‘victor’. He’s often cited as a saviour of Hong Kong cinema, a kind of Asian Spielberg who continued to produce plenty of films during a period of political turmoil and transition, from the Tiananmen Square protests to the handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule.

Tsui had been born and raised in Saigon and developed a love of films from an early age, though his parents wanted him to continue in the family business as a pharmacist. To this end, they sent him to be educated first in Hong Kong and then the USA, where he began a medical degree but soon transferred to a film course. He absorbed American movies and made From Spikes to Spindles, a documentary about the building of the railroad across the US by Chinese labour gangs.

On return to Hong Kong, he began working for the Chinese Television Company and soon found himself directing some episodes of a popular historical drama called The Golden Dagger Romance (1977). His first feature was The Butterfly Murders (1979), with some striking visuals and stylistic influences he had brought back with him from the west. It was a weird one about venomous butterflies and a black leather-clad supervillain. It’s pretty hard to summarise but comes across as a pulpy blend of wuxia, Gothic horror and creature-feature in the style of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). It was a box office flop but attracted a cult following and positive reviews.

Just like young filmmakers in the US, such as Wes Craven and John Carpenter, he fell back on horror and exploitation for his next film as director, We’re Going to Eat You a.k.a Kung-Fu Cannibals (1980) which borrowed from spaghetti westerns, Italian horror and the New York cinema of transgression, all fused with a typical Hong Kong knockabout comedy vibe! Again, not a massive hit but unusual enough to confirm him as a director to watch.

His next batch of films all fell foul of the authorities, interference from producers, or censorship in some way or another. Perhaps it was his frustration with the industry that drove him to return to the US to seek out special effects technicians to make his relatively high budget fantasy-wuxia movie Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) which ended up typically insane and looks rather like an extended episode of the 1970s Monkey TV series.

The experience drove him on to co-found, with his wife, an independent Hong Kong production company called Film Workshop, that would ensure he had more control. He also set-up a subsidiary special effects company, Cinefex Workshop, and so by 1986 was an important player in the Hong Kong film industry with much more freedom to make the films that he wanted to. One of the first was Peking Opera Blues (1986), a political thriller with a central romantic thread set in 1920s Peking. It was nominated in six major categories at the Hong Kong Film Awards and would later be hailed as one of the greatest films ever made by fellow upstart auteur Quentin Tarantino.

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Once Upon a Time in China / Wong Fei Hung (1991)

3.5 out of 5 stars

This year’s The Unity of Heroes (2018) is the latest in a long list of more than 120 films based, often very loosely, on the life and times of Wong Fei Hung. By comparison, I could only track Robin Hood to around 50 titles, and I really can’t think of many other characters that have been the focus of so many films for so long a period—except perhaps Dracula!

The popular version of Master Wong’s biography mixes historical fact with fanciful modern mythology. He really was a physician and martial arts master who’d been tutored in both medicine and combat by his father, Wong Kei-ying—one of the renowned ‘Ten Tigers of Canton’, a group of Kung fu masters who preserved the Wushu traditions and taught a new generation of Kung fu fighters. Hark would later tell his story in Iron Monkey (1993).

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Like his father, Wong Fei Hung became a symbol of folk tradition and cultural identity during several massive upheavals in Chinese history. He was born into a time of civil war as China was destabilised in the wake of the Opium Wars and by increasing foreign influences. By the time he was 15, he’d seen the outbreak of two bloody uprisings, The Taiping Rebellion and the Dungan Revolt, which resulted in 30 years of unrest and famines. He was approaching 50 when China lost Taiwan and its influence over Korea in a war with Japan and saw different foreign powers taking control of major ports and trade routes in the aftermath.

A series of rebellions against these foreign incursions eventually triggered all-out war once more and invasions by the Eight-nation Alliance of the United States, Britain, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Italy and the Austria-Hungarians—all acting under the pretence of protecting their citizens and their investments in Chinese trade and industry.

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Wong Fei Hung lived through all this, coming to represent some sort of quintessential Chinese identity. He saw the last emperor of the Imperial Dynasties relinquish his throne followed by the formation of the Chinese Republic in 1912 and Communism was already on the rise before Wong’s death in 1925. Certainly, a long and eventful life on which to hang plenty of stories…

Clearly, there are strong parallels with the way North America was carved up and controlled by various foreign factions. It’s no accident that the film’s export title aligns it with Sergio Leone’s opus Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), as it shares several central themes. Leone’s western is set around the same period and also concerns the end of an era, the passing of a way of life, as the railway brings the industrial revolution to the frontier, destroying an ancient culture…

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The first Once Upon a Time in China is set in the 19th-century as foreign influences create instability that local gangs readily exploit with racketeering and people trafficking, kidnapping women to be sold to the Americans to stock their frontier town brothels. It’s in no way an accurate biography of Wong but fictionalises his life, just as many films had done before. Although looking to a time of political and cultural upheaval in the past, Hark is also conscious of the story reflecting what was happening around him. He was writing his screenplay in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre—another time of political turmoil and pending change. The films are openly critical of a Chinese government indifferent to the plight of its people. Those in authority nearly all turn out to be corrupt—but he could get away with this in a period piece.

The film opens with a dragon dance aboard a ship to bless its voyage with good fortune. It doesn’t get more traditionally Chinese than that! As the acrobatic dancer climbs the rigging so his dragon can symbolically munch the offered lettuce, celebratory firecrackers are let off. Soldiers aboard a nearby foreign vessel ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ mistake this for gunshots, return fire and shoot the performer. Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) immediately takes up the dragon costume and completes the spectacular ritual under gunfire, risking his life to uphold Chinese tradition in the face of a hostile foreign presence. That scene just about sums up the whole film’s approach—exhilarating, politically charged, fun, and with Hark’s clever sense of irony. Famously, gunpowder was invented in China and used for many centuries simply to make fireworks for celebrations… it was westerners who repurposed it as a weapon and the coming of the gun is the central motif – the antithesis of honourable Kung fu fighting traditions. This more thoughtful, poetic approach is what marks the first two Once Upon a Time in China films aside from the usual ‘chopsocky’ fare.

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The film is gripping and generally, the heroes are easily liked, the villains instantly hateable. The one exception being ‘Iron Robe’ Yim (Shi-Kwan Yen). He joins the narrative as the bad guy, in a western he would be the black-hatted gunslinger out to kill the good guy just for the kudos of proving that he can. Historically, Kung fu masters could earn a good living by protecting different factions in those unstable, lawless times (the real Wong Fei Hong was a bodyguard for hire and trained militia) and proving you were the best was lucrative.

The central strength of Once Upon a Time in China is that the plot is character-driven – though never at the expense of the action! The relationships between Wong, his three evocatively named apprentices—Porky-Wing (Kent Cheng), Bucktooth-So (Jacky Cheung)… and Kai (Kam-Fai Yuen)—help with plot exposition and presents plenty of opportunities for complicating the action and introducing physical comedy. Wong’s unspoken, mutual affection for his 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) is challenged by Leung Foon (Biao Yuen) yet, despite this understated love triangle, they all become firm friends. But the rivalry between Wong and ‘Iron Robe’ is the backbone of the whole narrative.

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The film does have its flaws. The pacing is a little patchy and the storytelling confusing at times. I think it assumes a level of prior knowledge about Wong Fei Hung that would be expected in a Chinese audience. Also, it was put together piecemeal: shot at different studios, using different crews and fitting around the availability of the principal cast. At the time, the film industry in Hong Kong was more than thriving and they were churning out movies at a rate that averaged one-a-day! So, productions had to wait their turn to get time on the Shaw Brother’s famous ‘Old China’ backlot which can be seen in nearly all Hong Kong period dramas.

As a result, it has an episodic structure, which isn’t a bad thing and gives it the feel of an omnibus edition of a long-running TV series. Some segments are more successful than others, and the ones that work are memorable and unlike anything else that went before. It’s a stand-out example of the genre and a game-changer for Hong Kong cinema. It was a huge hit both at home and away, effectively creating an export market for the plethora of cash-in movies that followed.

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once upon a time in china 2

Once Upon a Time in China 2 / Wong Fei Hung 2: Nam Yee Tung Chi Keung (1992)

4 out of 5 stars

For part two, Hark took everything that was good about the first film and turned it up a notch. Although it’s equally epic—this time with a running time just shy of two hours, rather than just over—it never drags. It’s tighter, faster paced, cleverly plotted, and has an even better balance between comedy, drama, and action. The narrative is clearer, and it hangs together much more successfully as a cohesive whole.

Building on the success of part one, Hark secured a bigger budget and, with Raymond Chow from Golden Harvest as co-producer, had better access to Hong Kong’s studio resources. Although there’s nothing wrong with the look of the first film, it was a little patchy and with the photography shared between six cinematographers has the feel of a portmanteau. Part two is in the more than capable hands of veteran Arthur Wong, who it seems must have been responsible for the best bits of the first film because every scene is luscious and almost painterly at times. It’s one of those really important things, along with good sound, that makes a huge difference to the feeling of film quality, and on this remastered 4K print, it’s just beautiful.

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The opening sequence introduces one of cinema’s great adversaries in fine style. The leader of the White Lotus Cult is built up as indestructible and appears to be imbued with supernatural powers. Whereas Yim’s ‘Iron Robe’ Kung-Fu failed him in part one when confronted with bullets (“we cannot fight guns with Kung-Fu”) we see this super priest take three shots to the chest without flinching… but is all as it seems? The role is played by Jet Li’s regular stunt double Xin Xin Xiong (aka Hung Yan-yan) and after this intro, we know the whole film will be heading towards an epic confrontation with Wong Fei Hung—and thankfully the film is satisfyingly predictable!

Like Wong, the White Lotus Cult is fact-based and have featured in numerous films. Though there have been several incarnations of the cult since ancient times, the most infamous version took form during the First Sino-Japanese War. They were fanatically xenophobic, isolationists and collaborated with Japan as a potential ally in repelling all-westerners from China. This places the film more firmly against a specific period of history than the first instalment, the action playing out in the mid-1890s as China was forced to relinquish control of Korea and Taiwan.

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As a big bonus, we also have a second villain in the powerful and corrupt Commander Lan (Donnie Yen). Donnie Yen was already a Kung fu superstar, almost on par with Jet Li, so to have them sparring against each other was a major attraction and the fight sequences exceed expectations. This also excited martial arts aficionados because Jet Li was their ‘home champion’. He’d won his first of five gold medals in national Wushu tournaments by the time he was 11 and was coaching a national team before he was 20! Jet Li had trained mainly in the USA and was considered a master of tai chi, karate, taekwondo, boxing …and break-dancing! He had returned to China to train at Beijing’s Wushu Academy.

It was Yuen Woo-ping, the renowned stunt director, fight choreographer and director in his own right, that discovered the young Yen and propelled him to stardom in Drunken Tai Chi (1984). Yuen Woo-ping had a hand in directing the action for Once Upon a Time in China and returns to choreograph the spectacular, gravity-defying fights here. He went on to direct Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey and to work on The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004).

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Once Upon a Time in China is a fitting sequel and satisfying on every level. It’s edgier than the first, with the White Lotus Cult massacring Christians and burning anything they see as having a western influence—they are confirmed as the bad guys when the lead a dalmatian to the pyre because it is a dog of foreign origin! Wong Fei-Hung’s role as a physician is also at the fore and there is a sort of light-hearted medical contest with western doctors, where he uses acupuncture to suppress neural reflexes, something believed to be impossible, thus validating ancient Chinese sciences. The ‘forbidden’ relationship between Wong and his beautiful 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) develops and provides some of the film’s lighter and more tender moments. The fight scenes escalate throughout, from (sort of) believable, to stupendously spectacular. Until the recent glut of Marvel blockbusters, this was one of the best comic-book style superhero movies ever made.

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Once Upon a Time in China 3 / Wong Fei Hung 3: Si Wong Jaang Ba (1992)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sadly, after parts one and two, this is a bit of a let-down. The cinematography just isn’t remarkable. It looks cheaper and flatter. The painterly lighting and luscious textures are gone and although there is plenty of colour, it all seems a bit washed-out. It often looks more like cheap TV than quality cinema, the skies are whited out, the landscapes pallid. It doesn’t visually fit with the first two parts.

The action sequences feel much more contrived and aren’t as plot-driven, the wire-work is even more obvious and over-the-top, it goes beyond the comic-book superhero standard and becomes cartoonish. Often quite confused. Ridiculous rather than exhilarating.

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There are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments and the romantic elements are better developed, with that thread reaching a conclusion of sorts when Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) and his 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) finally admit their affection for each other and become bold enough to embrace publicly! It’s a warm fuzzy moment and even though you’re watching for the Kung fu, it’s the lighter moments between Li and Kwan that work best and provide some of the film’s highlights.

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There are some spectacular sequences involving hundreds of choreographed extras, the opening dragon dance contest is a considerable achievement—but it’s just not that exciting. By no means is this a bad movie at all, but it only really succeeds on the shoulders of the first two, it’s not a film you would insist your mates watch and it’s not one that will bear rewatching anywhere as often.

Jet Li may well have felt the same way as he stepped down after this outing and, for the next two instalments, the role of Wong Fei Hung was played by Vincent Wenzhuo Zhao. The more likely reason for this handover was something to do with contractual wrangling while Li was making The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk (1993) in which he plays another legendary folk hero. Vincent Zhao was also Wong Fei Hung in 27 episodes of the highly popular 1996 television series, but Jet Li was to take on the role once more the following year for Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997).

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Once Upon a Time in China and America / Wong Fei Hung 6: Sai Wik Hung See (1997)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Included with this box-set as a bonus fourth disc, Once Upon a Time in China and America concluded Hark’s six-film Wong Fei Hung sequence with Jet Li finding closure by returning to the role. Although continuing as a producer, Hark was too busy making the equally cheesy Van Damme vehicles Double Team (1997) and Knock-Off (1998), and his name is absent from the writing credits.

The new director, Sammo Hung, is another martial arts legend; a respected action director and performer with a sense of humour. He was one of the 1970s Hong Kong avant-garde to introduce a much more kinetic approach to action, with cameras that rushed and soared through the tumbling acrobatics, making this a defining feature of the genre.

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So, it’s no surprise that the fights are fast, furious and audaciously choreographed. He pushes the bounds of believability even further than part three did, but this time it doesn’t seem as eye-rollingly silly, because it’s more in tune with the overall approach. It’s clear from the get-go that we are going to be treated to every cliché of the western genre colliding with all our favourite Hong Kong action tropes.

Hark is a proven master at welding genres together, he did it with social-satire and gritty crime-drama for Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) and with comedy-romance and action-thriller for Peking Opera Blues. Here it’s cowboys and Indians meets martial arts, which really wasn’t anything new and had already been tried during the first wave of international interest in Kung fu with Man Yi Yang’s Italian Hong Kong co-production, Kung Fu Brothers in the Wild West (1973) and Mario Caiano’s substandard spaghetti western The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe (1973).

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The basic concept owes a great deal to the groundwork laid down by Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) in the Kung fu western television series (1972-75): the white American immigrants delight in bullying the mild-mannered Chinese immigrants, who run laundries and build their railroads. So, we just can’t wait until they try to beat-up the unassuming masters of martial arts and get their Kung fu comeuppance.

The central premise is that Wong Fei Hung, visiting the US to help establish a Chinese medical practice, is injured while defending a stagecoach against attack by ‘Indians’ and swept away by a river. He’s washed ashore suffering from amnesia, found by a local tribe who help with his convalescent as he learns their ways and earns their respect. Meanwhile, his apprentices and 13th Aunt team up with Billy (Jeff Wolfe), a well-meaning gunslinger to search for the missing Master Wong and come into conflict with the corrupt Mayor, his men and a band of brutal bandits. And throw-in a ludicrous, wolf-slaying villain (Joseph Sayah) with shuriken spurs! Yep, partner, it’s got the lot!

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Although it’s brutal and the most bloody of these four films, it’s also the most unashamedly out for fun. Some of the fight scenes escalate rapidly to battle scale, particularly those involving the conflicting native tribes. The body-count rises fast, but just like cartoon violence, we don’t get to see the clean-up, any remorse nor mourning. There are some blatantly political points liberally scattered through the script—cultural appropriation, colonial oppression, displacement of minorities—but we can’t get too hung-up about those as they are swept aside by the tightly choreographed, knock-about action.

By far the most gleeful and perhaps the least politically pretentious of the series, Once Upon a Time in China and America remains hugely enjoyable as a throw-away piece of Kung fu hokum with some stunning set-pieces. It may get cringingly cheesy at times, but what’s better than watching a whole saloon of sexist cowboy bigots being battered by a single unarmed Chinaman?

Well, actually, watching Once Upon a Time in China parts one and two would be time better spent…

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Special Limited Edition Box Set.
  • 1080p presentations of all three films sourced from brand new 4K restorations, making their UK debuts on Blu-ray.
  • Original Cantonese audio tracks. Optional English audio tracks. Interesting to compare the dubbed and subtitled versions—the characters say very different things, with the subtitles being by far the more poetic and meaningful.
  • Optional English audio tracks. For the most part, the English language dub really gets in the way of the entire soundtrack and they talk nonsense much of the time! This problem was most evident for part 4 as there are some linguistic jokes relying on them switching from their Chinese dialects into English that are totally lost in the dubbed track.
  • Optional English subtitles. Watch subtitled and they’re great fun, watch dubbed and they’re unremittingly terrible!
  • New audio commentaries on Once Upon a Time in China I-III by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder. Considering how chatty these commentaries are, they are hugely informative, I really got to know the recurring ensemble of extras and background characters who are all given due respect here. Also, there’s an insight into the audacity of the gung-ho Hong Kong approach to filmmaking which involved people actually getting shot with arrows and real historic locations going up in flames—it seems the attitude was anything goes, so long as it can be repaired later and looks great on camera! Leeder and Venema make a great double act and their knowledge and enthusiasm is showcased throughout, both seem to know many of the cast and crew personally and here and there they share little titbits of their background beyond the sets. The commentaries can’t be described as academic or tightly focused, but are so fast and densely packed with observations, opinion and fun facts that they will bear repeated listening—so no complaints there!
  • If you buy this edition, I implore you to watch the interviews included as extras, just people talking to camera with some inserted clips, yes, but the behind-the-scenes information and getting to know a little more about the process of making a martial arts movie really will help you appreciate the artistry and dedication of all involved: actor Mike Miller [49 mins], actor John Wakefield [29 mins], actor and Shaw Brothers veteran Yen Shi-kwan [10 mins], Jet Li [10 mins], and Donnie Yen [15 mins].
  • Archival Q&A with Jet Li [10 mins].
  • Archival interview with director Tsui Hark [23 mins].
  • Archival interview with John Wakefield [11 mins].
  • The Legend of Wong Fei-hung [40 mins]. A three-part featurette on the legendary folk hero.
  • Making of Once Upon a Time in China and America [25 mins]. A compilation of behind the scenes footage tied together with brief comments from Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, and most of the cast and crew, it covers a lot without giving all that much away, but gives a good feel of how the team worked and how cold they all were, filming in December and aiming for a February release for Chinese New Year!
  • Trailers.
  • PLUS: Collector’s booklets featuring new essays on all four films by James Oliver. Not available at the time of review.

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Cast & Crew

directors: Tsui Hark (OUATIC 1-3) • Sammo Hung & Lau Kar-wing (OUATICAA)
writers: Tsui Hark, Yuen Kai-chu, Leung Yiu-ming & Elsa Tang (OUATIC) • Tsui Hark, Chan Tin-suen & Cheung Tan (OUATIC2 & OUATIC3) • Sze-to Cheuk-hon, Shut Mei-yee, Sharon Hui, Philip Kwok & So Man-sing (OUATICAA)
starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan & Kent Cheng (OUATIC) • Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Max Mok & Donnie Yen (OUATIC2) • Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Max Mok & Lau Shun (OUATIC3) • Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Hung Yan-yan, Jeff Wolfe & Power Chan. (OUATICAA).

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