Hark Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China was a landmark release of 90s martial arts cinema. It helped to start a flurry of fast-paced martial arts/fantasy/comedy releases that would blow up the entire industry later that decade. It also kick-started a hefty franchise of six films, of which Tsui directed the first three (and the fifth). I liked the entire series back when I was first introduced to the films, but have to admit I forgot most of the particulars since I watched them. Revisiting the first one a couple of years ago was quite the success, so I was really looking forward to giving Tsui's follow-up another spin.
This sequel is somewhat of a rehash of the themes and motives of the first film. We're still following around Wong Fei Hung, one of China's most legendary martial arts figures, as he travels through the country with his aunt and his closest pupil. He's invited to attend a medical seminar where lectures are given on both Western and Chinese medicine. Hung is a very traditional but open-minded Chinese man, his aunt has spent a lot of time in America and is more versed in the Western ways. This comes in handy as British settlers are introducing many Western customs.
The first film was quite critical of those Western influences, so it's interesting to see that the sequel is taking a more balanced approach. Tsui seems to argue both cultures could learn a lot from each other, if only they are willing to listen and keep an open mind. This of course happens mostly in the background, Once Upon a Time in China II is primarily an action comedy, but with a traditionalist sect set up as the bad guys and the plot being entirely centered around struggles related to the integration of different cultures, it's not something that's easy to ignore.
When Wong Fei Hung arrives at the medical convention, his aunt is attacked because of her Western-style clothing and her photo camera. A sect called The White Lotus has taken over the city and is revolting against Western influences, including all its technological innovations. Chinese citizens are pressured to distance themselves from these Western influences and consulates in the city are under attack. Hung isn't too pleased with all this senseless violence and vows to protect the British consulate, especially after the White Lotus gang harassed a class of young kids.
One thing that makes these early 90s martial arts film so attractive is their superbly dynamic cinematography. They may not have had digital cameras back then, but that didn't keep them from rushing through narrow and crowded sets, flinging the camera high and low to get the coolest shots possible. The editing too is an important asset, bringing a rhythm and vibrancy to the action scenes that was never seen before. Atmospheric use of color and lighting and a welcome digital restoration turn Once Upon a Time in China II into a visually pleasing film.
The score is typically the weakest part of martial arts cinema and this film is no exception. The music has a traditional Chinese feel to it, there's a theme song that isn't all that impressive and overall the music leaves no lasting impression. It provides some background noise to avoid overt silences, but that's about it. Not that it matters much, as long as the music isn't actively irritating I'm fine with a less prominent score here. At least the sound effects are pretty cool, which helps to bring the action scenes to life. There's no doubt potential to do better, but it's well on par with other films in the genre.
Martial arts films are highly dependent on their lead stars and few of them have been more fitting than early 90s Jet Li. He was crazy fast, extremely nimble and yet still very statuesque and graceful. His rendition of Wong Fei Hong is a benchmark that's rarely been matched since. To see Donnie Yet opposite him is a dream come true, the two one-one-one fights between them belong to the very prime martial arts cinema brought forth. Rosamund Kwan and Siu Chung Mok provide some solid comic relief, rounding off a very capable cast.
Though Once Upon a Time in China II is a pretty hardcore action flick, the first half doesn't have much actual fighting, instead Tsui uses this time to set up the story and provide some comic relief. There are quite a few marginal martial arts scenes (like practice sequences and household martial arts - i.e. keeping dinner from hitting the ground in a moving train), but you'll have to wait until the second half to get to the meat of the film. Once fists start flying though, the film is just one big succession of impressive action scenes, with the finale holding up as one of the all-time highlights of the genre.
The Once Upon a Time in China series stands proud as one of the benchmarks of 90s martial arts cinema. Director Hark Tsui, action visionary Woo-Ping Yuen, actor Jet Li and cinematographer Arthur Wong created a template that many would try to copy, but few would manage to approximate. This sequel is a vibrant action spectacle, sporting some of the most impressive fights in the genre, colorful background drama and perfect pacing that won't leave you a chance to get bored. I'm already looking forward to revisiting the rest of the franchise.