In light of the Hong Kong box office success of Once Upon a Time in China (which was the 8th highest earner in 1991, making HK$29,672,278.00 over its 56 day run), it was only a matter of course before at least one sequel would get spawned. This being a Film Workshop baby, one could also justly expect the ante to be upped in the second work of what turned out to be a six movie series. The appointment of Yuen Woo Ping as action director appeared to signal such. Ditto re the bringing in of the likes of former Shaw Brothers star, David Chiang, Max Mok (to replace Yuen Biao as Wong’s student, Foon) plus two accomplished martial artists turned actors in Donnie Yen and Xiong Xin Xin to be supporting cast members. It thus probably wasn’t to many people’s surprise that the 1992 production — which some fans prefer to its predecessor — succeeded in earning more box office money (HK$30,399,676.00; though, interestingly, it spent 14 fewer days in theatres and finished 4 rungs lower in that year’s box office tables).
The beginning section of Once Upon a Time in China II throws viewers into initially unfamiliar and terribly exotic looking territory: The fanatical realm of the White Lotus Sect, who we learn are virulently xenophobic — their ritual incantations include the exhortation to “Kill all foreigners. So we can live in peace” — and headed by a man who claims to have supernatural powers vested in him (Priest Kung is played by Xiong Xin Xin). However, the scenes that accompany the opening credits and immediately follow them seem to signal director-producer Tsui Hark’s strong intent to echo — and build on — two thematic elements which had worked well the previous time around: Demonstrations of the physical strengths and prowess of martial arts trained humans; and meditations on how best to deal with the Western, Chinese, progressive and conservative ideological strains coursing through the province and country of Wong Fei Hung (who gets excellently portrayed once more by Jet Li) and his (honorary) Thirteenth Aunt (Rosamund Kwan is softer here than before but just as sweet).
The decision to paint things on a larger canvas can be seen in the great bulk of events in Once Upon a Time in China II taking place in 1895 Canton rather than Master Wong’s hometown of Fo Shan. It is also evidenced in the staging of more — and more spectacular — fights involving Wong Sifu than there had been in the first film, in which Jet Li had starred as the master exponent of such as the “no shadow kick”. While the two duels with Regional Commander Lan — who Donnie Yen shows to be the impressive wielder of a powerful “cloth stick” — are convincingly intense, and the one-against-many brawls that the Cantonese folk hero gets involved in allow the movie’s star to show his eminently watchable moves, it’s the lengthy battle against Priest Kung and a pair of his — literally so — supporters that makes for truly breathtaking viewing. An extra dimension gets provided by the incorporation into this often chaotic picture of Dr. Sun Yat Sen (played here by Cheung Tit Lam); a nationalist activist revered in real life by Chinese communists, Kuomintang and followers of still other different political persuasions alike, who is seen in this work being wanted by imperial forces as well as befriending Wong Fei Hung at an international medical conference (during the course of which the Po Chi Lam herbalist demonstrates acupuncture techniques to Red Cross officials and others while Dr. Sun does the Cantonese-to-English translation).
The connection of folk mythology with Chinese (trans)national history — by way of postulating an actual association between two legendary figures — is what allows Once Upon a Time in China II to have the kind of movingly spine tingling ending that it does. At least a couple of dramatic scenes involving an individual named Luke (the Christian money man for the revolutionary republican movement whose time came in 1912 is solidly portrayed by David Chiang) also conjure up rather genuine feeling emotions. This (re)viewer additionally appreciates Rosamund Kwan’s ability to make Sap Saam Ee — whose personal name gets revealed here to be Siu Qin — into something more than the flower vase character that she on occasion seems in danger of be(com)ing.
For the most part though, my verdict is that Once Upon a Time in China II does disappoint somewhat in terms of:
- its social commentary coming across as lacking fire as well as feeling rather scattershot (partly on account of Wong Fei Hung’s enemies being more misguided and misguiding individuals — even if they are ones representing particular organizations — rather than actual ideologies or preferred ways of life);
- its romantic scenes missing the delightful light touch possessed by its predecessor;
- and its comedic sections seeming more laboured than fun. Fight fiends could care less though, what with this 109 minute long production’s containing the kind of action scenes that really can satisfy as well as astound even those who want their (martial arts) movies to be amply filled with heart, thought and laughs as well as majestic displays of physical prowess and technical ability.