The first two chapters in this telling of the legend of Wong Fei Hung are bona fide classics, so the third has to aim its no-shadow kicks high. While it may not reach those heights, Once Upon in China 3 does a great job of carrying on the story and themes of international influence in China and the interplay between tradition and modernisation. It just goes about this in a different way, which while a little disappointing should still be admired for exploring those core themes using avenues new to this series, but which draw upon the rich history of Wong Fei Hung film tradition.
There are two main plot threads — the romance and the lion king contest. Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) and the lady variously known as Cousin Yee, Thirteenth Aunt or variations thereof (Rosamund Kwan) have travelled to Beijing, with the loyal Leung Foon (Max Mok) tagging along to carry the bags. The pair intend to marry and have made the journey to break the news to Fei Hung’s father Wong Kei Ying (Lau Shun). While in the imperial capital, Wong Fei Hung is caught up in the turmoil surrounding a lion dance competition, which is being manipulated behind the scenes for various underhanded aims. None of the participants are aware of this; they simply want the glory of being crowned as The Lion King. The political and ideological conflicts between characters that elevated the fights in previous films are missing in action, reduced to background context.
That drama is instead played up in the romance. Although Wong Fei Hung and Cousin Yee are not blood relatives, it’s nevertheless a kind of extended inter-family relationship that means a marriage between them would traditionally not be permitted. Thus that tension between respecting cultural practices and moving into new territory that plays out in so many scenarios throughout this series is brought to bear on Fei Hung in a much more personal way. He’s always been the more traditional of the couple and he clearly struggles with the dilemma.
Romantic awkwardness has been a part of Wong Fei Hung’s character since the beginning of the long running film saga starring Kwan Tak-Hing. There’s a scene in The True Story of Wong Fei-hung, Part 1 where Master Wong is all bumbling and out of sorts when faced with a young lady lounging seductively on a bunk. (As an aside: the pose and attire of the lady, propped up on her side with arm on hip, wearing a white gown and sporting two side buns as a hairstyle makes her the spitting image of Princess Leia in the room where Luke finds her on the Death Star in Star Wars. George Lucas had other eastern film influences besides Akira Kurosawa.) Seeing the cool and collected master off balance can be pretty funny and Once Upon in China 3 takes many opportunities to push him. He’ll bluster when faced with a potential romantic rival in a Russian diplomat (John Wakefield, a Cantonese speaker who fits his role well) and fluster when trying to openly express his romantic feelings. Good thing an exasperated Cousin Yee picks up the slack to encourage Fei Hung to man up. She even initiates a “steamy” kiss!
A good deal of the romance in the earlier installments was poetically told through the visuals. This technique is still present and there are important character decisions made without dialogue that could pass by without paying careful attention. With all this restraint, when Wong Fei Hung impetuously runs to the love of his life, picks her up, spins her around in full view of everyone and calls her by her first name it’s a powerful moment.
Matching the sweetness of the romance, the film is lighter in tone than its predecessors. The headquarters of the Cantonese Association, which Wong Kei Ying leads, is a place of warmth and camaraderie and there are more comedic scenes and less death and violence. Action still abounds, but the film again takes a different approach to previous installments. Lion dancing has long been a part of Wong Fei Hung films as well (e.g. Wong Fei-hung, King of Lion Dance from 1957) and director Tsui Hark has all the resources of a Film Workshop production to showcase the spectacle of this cultural tradition. The film opens with a massive lion dance in a Forbidden City courtyard and closes with the lion king contest itself, with more leonine argy-bargy along the way. There’s as much fighting as dancing and many of the lions in these scenes are kitted out with dirty trick weaponry to sabotage opponents. It’s elaborate, lavish and colourful — but in a sense a disappointment.
Once Upon a Time in China 3 is widely considered a let down in the hand to hand fighting department, particularly in lacking a final showdown with a formidable opponent. Rickshaw driver Clubfoot (Xiong Xin Xin, back after performing stunts in the first film and playing the cult priest Gao Kung in the second) poses the biggest physical challenge with his frenzied fighting style, but he’s no longer a threat by the film’s midpoint. This pays off nicely in the story and sets up Clubfoot (or Seven as he would later be known) as a recurring character, but there’s no one else to look forward to facing. The chief antagonist is gang leader Chiu Tim-ba (Chiu Gin) and he’s a silly buffoon who never gets a real battle against Wong Fei Hung. At least there’re still some good crowd brawls, the standout being Fei Hung having to fight on an oil-slicked floor which robs him of the security of those solid southern kung fu stances. What’s here is still great and well-staged, just less of the usual high standard with fists and feet.
The rest of production is as good as what has come before. The music is as rousing as ever and Andrew Lau Wai-keung’s cinematography maintains the evocative lighting on display throughout the series, particularly in the interiors. Setting the story in Beijing is pulling a historical wibbly-wobbly, but allows the film to show off more new sights and spectacular location shooting at the Forbidden City and Beijing Film Studio sets, often with huge crowds of extras. It also brings Jet Li back home to Beijing.
As a complete package it’s a well-told tale, suffering unfairly on the back of expectations set by prior episodes. Once Upon a Time in China 3 deserves more recognition. Plus it has all the rousing music and colourful sights of Disney’s The Lion King, with better fight scenes.