The third entry in director Tsui Hark's popular ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, featuring Jet Li as legendary martial artist Wong Fei-hung, begins to lose steam with an inconsequential story about an assassination plot linked to a Peking Lion Team dance competition.
In turn-of-the-century China, the Dowager Empress and President Li Hung-chang announce a Lion King Competition as a show of Chinese martial arts power to impress the increasing numbers of foreign diplomats. Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) and his father's Cantonese Association are repeatedly challenged by
their chief rival, the Tai Ping Lion Team. Wong's girlfriend, Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), becomes friendly with Tomanovsky (John Wakefield), a Russian consular official. He gives her a movie camera with which she later inadvertently films the Russians' execution of a spy. This leads to the discovery
of a Russian plot to murder President Li; the assassins hope to stop China from ceding Liaohung Peninsula to Japan.
At the Lion King Competition, Wong seeks to thwart the plot by winning the contest and preventing the explosion of the firecracker "bait" which the lion teams are fighting to reach; the explosion is to serve as the assassin's signal. Dirty tricks by the Tai Ping team confound Wong's plans, but
Aunt Yee's use of the movie camera to distract Tomanovsky helps Wong to upset the assassin's aim.
The first two films in this series not only boasted extraordinary martial arts and stunt sequences, but told engaging stories reflecting Chinese resentment of colonial intrusion and ambivalence towards the adoption of western customs and technology. Those elements are lightly touched on here, but
without any significant critique or insight. The hackneyed assassination subplot only serves to point up the emptiness of the story.
The use of an early movie camera by Aunt Yee provides some moments of amusement for film buffs. Fans frustrated by Wong's refusal to acknowledge Yee's romantic intent in the first two films will be pleased to see the two announce their engagement here. There are several well-staged fights, but
none with the imaginative choreography, ferocious energy, and dazzling prop work found in the first two films. The character of Wong's father, Wong Kei-ying, featured prominently in two other recent Hong Kong kung fu films, IRON MONKEY (1993) and DRUNKEN MASTER II (1994), is a supporting character
here as well. (Violence.)
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