The inevitable follow-up to Tsui Hark's martial arts epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991) doesn't quite jar the floor like its predecessor, but it encores the lavish historical pageantry and fertile political subtexts that usually catapult Hark's work way beyond the campy realm of just
plain kung fu fighting. These films are thoughtful, handsomely mounted, serio-comic period sagas--with superior kung fu fighting.
The sequel is set in 1895, 20 years since Master Wong's earlier adventure, though none of the characters appears to have aged at all. Physician, scholar, troubleshooter, and famed martial arts teacher Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is still grappling with modern Western ways while en route to an
international medical conference in Canton. The beautiful, cosmopolitan Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) still secretly adores Wong, while his oafish but earnest disciple Fu (Max Mok) has a crush on her. What has changed is the international situation, with more foreigners and foreign ideas, like
democracy, arriving on Chinese soil. While Wong and his companions seek a productive union of East and West, the White Lotus, a Canton-based cult, accepts nothing less than death to all outsiders and Chinese who are friendly to them. When White Lotus fanatics attack the medical conference and an
English-speaking school, Wong herds survivors into the British embassy. The Emperor's troops are supposed to guard the refuge, but there's a complication: Commander Lan (Donnie Yen) has vowed to crush an embryonic Chinese citizens' movement, and one of its key freedom fighters is inside the
building. He, like Wong, is also a progressive physician--Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Zhang Tie Lin; the character is treated with the reverence that serious US filmmakers would accord a Lincoln or Martin Luther King).
Lan allows White Lotus assassins inside the compound, where most of the British subjects are slaughtered. Master Wong and Fu beat back the marauders, permitting Yee, Sun Yat-sen, and the schoolchildren to flee. Wong and another Chinese dissident, Luke (David Chiang), enter the White Lotus temple
to defy the supposedly invincible leader, Priest Kung (Xin Xin Xiong). Their battle is pure Tsui Hark; as proof of his divinity, Kung cannot be allowed to touch the ground. His showdown with Wong becomes a contest of balance atop an impromptu "altar," a tottering tower of tables that sways
precariously as leg after leg is kicked out. Finally, Kung is fatally impaled on the White Lotus idol. But an even worse danger awaits outside in the form of Commander Lan, a fearsome martial arts master himself, capable of wielding a sheet of cloth as either a deadly lash or a rock-hard staff. He
kills Luke, wounds Fu, and seems to have Wong at his mercy when the hero slices Lan's carotid artery with a bamboo splinter. A rather abrupt ending shows Sun Yat-sen and cohorts escaping by sea as Wong belatedly realizes Yee's love for him.
As he did in his last Master Wong escapade, Tsui Hark wields that rarest of kung fu movie weapons, a real story to tell. The plot isn't mere padding between bouts of mortal combat, but a panoply of characters, incidents, and ironies that seamlessly complement the gravity-defying action with
surprisingly thoughtful musings on the changing face of China at the turn of the century. For all Wong's physical prowess, his greatest challenge early on is learning to eat with spoon and fork rather than chopsticks. His role at the conference is to demonstrate to visiting doctors the ancient
healing art of acupuncture, and the opportunity arises when he's treating casualties in the besieged embassy. It's worth noting that the original ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA centered on competing foreign imperialists carving up China; Master Wong's main fight was against mercenary Yankee slave
traders and their mainland lackeys; up until the final scene he was the one resisting Western influence. Shifting the backdrop from the era of the Unequal Treaties to that of the Boxer Rebellion, this next chapter presents a more complex portrait of China in transition, with unmistakable echoes of
the present day. When Luke and Wong confront mindlessly chanting White Lotus hordes and Luke declares "We are lost!", he despairs not over their immediate peril, but for the future; for how can China advance when its masses so eagerly obey xenophobic charlatans? Today Priest Kung; tomorrow the
Gang of Four.
Jet Li continues to portray the gentleman-scholar Wong with grace, humor and eye-of-the-storm serenity, and he's especially good in some sweet, chaste romantic clinches with Aunt Yee, when he thinks he's teaching her self-defense tactics; she meanwhile fantasizes they're waltzing together. But he
also delivers as a quietly confident action hero, albeit abetted by off-screen wires and pulleys for some of the more breathtaking stunts. Hong Kong chopsocky epics traditionally depict "fantasy kung fu," as opposed to more realistic techniques exemplified by Bruce Lee, but Hark (who's been called
a Far East Spielberg) knows in this case how to push his harness-assisted mayhem to outrageous extremes without losing the narrative's tenuous but crucial grounding in reality.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II was succeeded by ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III, after which Hark and Jet Li had a much-publicized falling out. For the fourth and fifth installments in the series Lao Wen Zhiou took over as Master Wong (under direction of Yuen Bun), while Jet Li reprised Wong in his
own LAST HERO IN CHINA. All this variation should really be no surprise because Wong Fei-hung (or Huang Fei-hong), a real-life martial artist and celebrated lion-dancer who died in 1926, is a mythologized mainstay of Hong Kong cinema, an equivalent of American icons like Wyatt Earp or Billy the
Kid. He holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the focus of 85 features (beginning with 1949's THE TRUE STORY OF HUANG FEI-HONG and continuing through 1980's MAD BUTCHER), the majority starring Kwan Tak-hing. And that's not counting Master Wong spin-offs and apocrypha like
Jackie Chan's comedic DRUNKEN MASTER II(1994). For Asian audiences, Hark's definitive Wong Fei-hung spectacles must fill big sandals to be the apotheosis of the Chinese folk hero. For Western viewers that's an abundance of riches. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: The inevitable follow-up to Tsui Hark's martial arts epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991) doesn't quite jar the floor like its predecessor, but it encores the lavish historical pageantry and fertile political subtexts that usually catapult Hark's work way… (more)