Intrigue and danger in 19th century China was never more awesome than this…
It looks certain that he’ll be defeated. He’s surrounded by foes who are better armed than he. The enemy is numerous, he’s looking after another person who came in with him. If he can’t find a way out, he and his friend will be put to death. But strangely he’s smiling, his face an ocean of serenity. Within seconds, he’s tackled the first ten people in front of him throwing them aside like rag dolls with the easiest of manoeuvres. When the group’s leader finally appears, he is just as fast as our hero. A blur of hand and foot moves, he keeps our hero from finding a way in and makes him dance atop a stack of tables while the army of people below wait in case our hero falls and then they’ll pounce. I don’t know why they thought that, after all, our hero is Wong Fei-Hung.
If you’ve never heard of Wong Fei-Hung, I don’t blame you. Despite being one of the most famous heroes in modern Chinese history, he’s not that well known outside his home country. Unless you’re a martial arts movie fan, in which case, hey you’ve probably got a favourite scene where he pasted someone to a floor. In truth, the man in real life was a martial arts practitioner, traditional medicine expert and community leader as he travelled throughout his homeland. He lived through one of the most turbulent times in China’s history. From the dying days of the Qing dynasty to the beginnings of the civil war, Wong Fei-Hung tried his best to promote law and order and in real life, suffered terrible losses personally as he lost friends and family not only from day to day strife but because of who he was. Over the years, he’s been mythologised to the point that he’s more like Robin Hood. The truth was probably amazing but it doesn’t hurt to see a real hero fight people in a fictional cause. In any case, while the first Once Upon a Time In China is an amazing film, truly showing the talents of Tsui Hark and Jet Li, the sequel actually doubles up the action, drama and quick-fire dialogue. Building on the events of the first film, this one finds Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) travelling to Guangzhou (also known as Canton) with 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and student Foon (Max Mok) to attend a conference on Chinese and Western medicine. After meeting a translator Sun Wen (Zhang Tielin), the conference is disrupted by a cult of xenophobic Chinese called the White Lotus Society. Seems they don’t like foreigners and want them out of Canton. Into this is thrown the added problem of General Nap-lan Yun-seut (Donnie Yen) who is tracking down rebels against the Qing government. These rebels want a democratic Chinese nation but that’s not going to happen in Imperial China. So Nap-lan is using every trick in the book to find them. Wong Fei-Hung learns that Sun Wen and others are those rebels. He, Foon and 13th Aunt decide to help the rebels, protect the foreigners and stop the White Lotus Society.
Tsui Hark’s films have long been favourites of mine. Even when he’s not trying (Double Team, Twin Dragons), he’s got a lust for life in front of the camera that pushes through any deficiencies in terms of script or acting. When he’s being lazy, you can tell because every second is being wasted. But when he’s energised, the camera flies along trying desperately to keep up with his whims. He stages a lot of his scenes with a deliberate stillness and slowness. Things are happening in the background but he’s not concerned with it. All that matters is the line or the facial gesture. One of his earliest works, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, is one of the earliest examples I can think of an Asian director using Hollywood special effects and Hong Kong style filmmaking techniques together. In that film, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao look more active than any other point in their careers, not just in terms of action but the joy in the performances. Hark has long been a practitioner of resurrecting tropes and genres that filmmakers have abandoned or forgotten. Every time he reaches forward, he’s reaching back but always in a way that the audience doesn’t feel a story’s origins are being reheated. For Wong Fei-Hung’s adventures, he wanted to give an honest to God love letter to wuxia films to Hong Kong audiences. In his wuxia films that Hark watched as a young man, the hero is earnest, true, unsure of himself at times and prevails not because he survives the film but because he was on a truthful path. In Jet Li, Hark found an actor who could perform complex manoeuvres, command a scene without overpowering it and had just enough charisma and acting talent to hold his own when his fellow actors need something to anchor their own performances. Don’t get me wrong, Jet Li will never win an Oscar but he’s not without his talents having been recognised for work like The Warlords and Fearless. Here, he is Wong Fei-Hung. It’s hard to explain how important Wong is to Chinese people. For American readers, it would be like if someone was asked to portray John Kennedy or for UK readers, Winston Churchill. These people didn’t find a nation or invent a cure for a disease but they hold a special place in the audience’s hearts. So for audiences to go see the first three OUATIC in droves speaks to how much they liked Li in the title role. You never think he’s some kind of boy scout (he does kill people when he’s forced to) but there’s something noble about his character that even the villains respond to. It’s like they don’t know how to deal with someone this nice. Couple that to the fact that he was a master of Hung Gar and people very rarely have an actual go at him. He can face hordes of kung fu warriors, spot treachery in plain sight and talk down multiple sides in conflict but ask him to talk about his feelings for 13th Aunt and Wong Fei-Hung falls apart. It’s not hard to see why as Rosamund Kwan is a wonderful foil to Jet Li. She is smart, capable, brave and knowledgable. Educated in an English speaking environment, she is the bridge to the new world of commerce and corsets for Wong. She tries to show Wong the world outside of China and he, in turn, tries to show her Chinese tradition that she’s forgotten. The great thing about Kwan and Li’s performances is that they never come across like they have to learn to be better people. They already are good people, they instead learn how to see the world in different ways. While they are not blood-related, tradition means they can’t express their feelings for each other so they find other ways to show love. It’s never heavy-handed or done with an overly dramatic brush. Hark lets them play at being embarrassed about being in love. 13th Aunt feigns an ankle injury and because Foon carries a bit of a torch for Aunt from the first film, Wong takes it upon himself to carry her. She, of course, is happy and giddy to be carried by her beau but when she hears of people in danger, she takes off running to help to leave Wong staring into the distance. When the British embassy is under attack, he sends her out to help Sun but as she goes, he calls her by her first name. She is startled but just smiles and runs on. No dramatic music, no sweeping camera moves, Hark just plays the scene and leaves it at that. Foon is a good foil for the two leads. He’s still in training so he tries to be the best student he can. But two things let him down: he frequently lets 13th Aunt take advantage of his good nature and he is sometimes admonished by Fei-Hung for something that really is Fei-Hung’s fault. Foon is played better by Mok than he was played by Yuen Biao. Biao’s Foon is more smart than he should be, not to put too fine a point on it. He comes across like he’s really skilled in kung fu but we see him trying to short circuit the process by becoming apprentice to a more skilled master. OUATIC2 resets Foon and starts him off fresh. Mok makes the character earnest, lovable and quick to action if a little foolishly. In many ways, he’s a mirror image of Fei-Hung. With Mok playing him, Foon could become a good man, skilled in martial arts and a pillar of any community, he just needs patience and practice.
Every good hero needs a great villain and in this, we have the unmistakable Donnie Yen. Donnie has been steadily working in the Hong Kong film industry for over thirty years following his debut in Drunken Tai Chi. Over that time he has become leading man material with a commanding presence in films. But for a period in the 90’s he still was honing himself and could do anything he wanted really (I won’t get into how HK actors have to now present themselves in projects that need to be shown in mainland China) and here he is presented initially as another government official trying to do the right thing, protecting foreigners and Chinese from the White Lotus fighters. But pretty soon we get the record straight that he is just as bad as the White Lotus Society. At least they can say they’re trying to save Chinese culture from foreign invasion, albeit in a murderous fashion. Nap-lan just wants to crush the rebels because they’re a thorn in the side of the Qing dynasty. From his indiscriminate murder of British officials to the framing of democracy advocates, our Donnie is out to win by any means possible. But when Nap-lan comes across Wong Fei-Hung, the latter’s reputation comes ahead of him. So there are moments when Nap-lan genuinely admires or gives the impression that he admires Fei-Hung. He tests him when Fei-Hung goes to talk with him about the children from the language school whose parents and guardians were murdered by White Lotus. Upon meeting, Nap-lan immediately launches into a fight with Fei-Hung and the brilliance of the scene is that between choreographer Arthur Wong, Tsui Hark and the actors, Fei-Hung never looks angry or becomes volatile after being attacked without warning. He simply moves into action, seeing what happens next. Thinking he has the measure of Fei-Hung, Nap-lan tries flattery and then powerlessness and the two actors are brilliant in their delivery as each is trying to get to the truth without overplaying their hand. Donnie Yen plays a brilliant villain and it’s nice to see that, yes, he is a bad guy but there’s a manic ruthlessness to his character that feels like there’s a more underlying reason for him to be this evil.
As just mentioned, one of the best reasons to watch Once Upon a Time in China is the action scenes. Jet Li was always paired against brilliant opponents in the series and he gets both the leader of White Lotus, Priest Kung (Hung Yan-yan), and Donnie Yen to fight. The fight between Kung and Fei-Hung is magic, spending most of its time either balanced on stacks of tables, on top of a sheet held by White Lotus members and over tables and chairs. Li flies across the room (which he had just demolished spurning White Lotus fighter attacks) trying to discover why Kung is so seemingly invincible. Even before he finds out the reason, he scores enough hits on Kung to drive Kung nuts and to start to find a weakness in his fighting style. There’s a moment when Kung is sent flying, Fei-Hung beats two of Kung’s soldiers who had the drop on him and still finds time to strike a pose and fire off a line at Kung. I remember seeing OUATIC2 for the first time and saw that and said: “I don’t care what comes next or how good the third film is, this is as good as it gets”. Don’t believe me, here:
The final fight with Donnie Yen is brutal and quick, spilling from a warehouse into a grubby backstreet as the two fighters battle over a list of dissidents. If Nap-lan gets it, more blood will be spilt. If Wong Fei-Hung gets it, the government’s crackdown on the rebels will come to nothing. Bamboo sticks, wood bo staff, rice, a damn roll of cloth used as a stick (!) and crockery are used to gain an advantage or to buy time. By the end, it’s a much better ending than the final fight between the American slavers and Wong Fei-Hung in the first film. It ends with one man’s kung fu being that bit better than the other’s. My appreciation for Jet Li’s performance is not diminished after learning that his stunt double had to work overtime to cover him due to injury and insurance for certain shots. 100% of every shot he’s in is electric and exciting.
Once Upon a Time in China II is my personal favourite of the trilogy as it combines the best parts of the three: action, romance, camera work and a complicated story of who is the real villain is. The first is good and it’s action-packed but the second film hones it down to perfection and the third one loses its way trying to get the heart of the matter. I also love Once Upon a Time in China and America despite its silliness and slapstick mostly because the team of Hark, Li and Kwan reunite after one or the other didn’t come back for the fourth or fifth one. That and Sammo Hung is the director of China and America, and he always brings his A-game to other people’s projects. If you can, pick up any of Hong Kong Legends older releases of the trilogy as you’ll get Bey Logan and his limitless knowledge on the films. There’s also the Region A friendly Blu-ray releases by Fortune Star but they have not the best transfers. The second film should be in your Jet Li collection at the very least. Fast, fun and endlessly quotable for its attack moves, it is 90’s Hong Kong cinema at its best.