Here we are! It took me about a decade of reviewing personal favorites, but I'll finally be writing about a Jing Wong film in full form. How much of that is due to the team he assembled around himself is anyone's guess (and I'm sure people are eager to wager a guess based on the preconceptions they have). It doesn't matter though. Wong is the director and ultimately he holds the responsibility for the end product. And for those with a soft spot for 90s Hong Kong martial arts comedies, that's great news. With some help from the best in the business, he made a superbly entertaining film.
Whether you love or hate Jing Wong's work, it's impossible to deny the impact he's had on the Hong Kong movie industry these past four decades. Not only did he direct a bucket load of films, he even produced and wrote more, he acted in a bunch of them and kick-started the careers of many famous directors and actors. He has been absolutely tireless and it's virtually impossible to watch a random selection of 10 Hong Kong films without Wong being involved in at least one of them in some form or other. And yes, my math may be a little off, but I promise the sentiment of my statement is right on the money.
The Last Hero in China is another film starring Wong Fei-hung, no doubt one of the most referenced local heroes in Hong Kong cinema (and broader HK media I assume) during the early 90s. He's the star of the Once Upon a Time in China films, and this film is basically just an unofficial franchise entry. Together with the help of legendary martial arts choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, Wong set out to direct a little spin-off story that brings the usual mix of comedy and action, with a dash of horror, romance, and some musical bits thrown in for good measure. It's the classic Hong Kong entertainment cocktail, and that's really where Jing Wong comes into his own, especially when he allows himself to make things a little bit weird.
Wong Fei-hung finds himself in a bit of trouble when a brothel opens next to his martial arts school. The girls who work there like to bother Wong's students, so they are having a hard time keeping their focus on chores and studies. When word gets out that some girls are disappearing, Wong shows his righteous side and decides to help them out. He uncovers a kidnapping scheme that runs quite deep and that gets him into some serious trouble with the local authorities. Wong pushes through though and he vows to clear up this injustice, even if it may cost him his life.
The Last Hero in China was made in '93, which means it comes with a very clear stylistic signature. All these films look pretty much the same and it would be silly to expect anything else from a Jing Wong production. Luckily, the Hong Kong movie industry operated like a well-oiled machine back then, so even on automatic pilot and working against a tight schedule, they managed to produce pretty decent-looking films. The camera work, lighting, and editing in particular are all top-notch and perfectly support the action on display. It's certainly not the best of the bunch, but it delivers what was expected.
The soundtrack is probably the weakest part of the film, but that too is hardly a surprise. Wong sticks with what is known to work, which is not-so-very-pleasant Chinese music, mixed with some rather terrible (comedy) songs. The music is mostly loud and functions as a means to fill in dead space, and it does that without being too annoying (though your mileage may differ, depending on how familiar you are with this type of music). It's not something that actively bothered me, then again I've seen plenty of these films and I'm pretty used to how they sound by now.
Hong Kong acting is somewhat of an acquired taste too, but one man here transcends that. Wong was able to land Jet Li for the role of Wong Fei-hung, and that makes a huge difference. Li is one of the best on-screen martial artists in the history of Hong Kong cinema and with the action choreographies of Yuen backing him, the spectacle is pretty much guaranteed. The rest of the cast isn't bad (Man Cheung is funny, Pak-Cheung Chan isn't his worst self and Chia-Hui Liu is simply legendary), but it's really just Li's show and he doesn't let the film down.
Last Hero in China has everything you could ever hope to see in a film like this. From drunken fights to dragon dances, from horny martial arts students to graphic horror bits, it's all there, in pretty even quantities. What makes this film just a little better than the rest is things like the chicken versus centipede fight. That's something you probably hadn't seen before and it's those crazy ideas that tend to stick, even years after having seen the film. Jing Wong has them in many of his films, but it's rare that he finds the right people to bring them to life, which is what makes this film one (if not the) best in his oeuvre.
Don't be mistaken, this film is pure and unfiltered entertainment, lacking any real artistic or creative pretensions. Don't watch this hoping to find a surprising, exciting masterpiece. If, on the other hand, you're looking to sample core genre work at its best, Last Hero in China is one of the best places to start. The action choreography is superb, Li is at the top of his game, the comedy is bonkers and there are at least a few scenes that will linger well beyond the credits. Jing Wong may be considered a hack by some, but I still have great respect for what he accomplished, and I'm happy there's at least one of his films that made it into my list of personal favorites.