Starring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Rosamund Kwan, Max Mok, Zhang Tielin, David Chiang, Hung Yan-Yan, Yen Shi-Kwan
Directed by Tsui Hark
Expectations: High. I haven’t seen it in a while and I’m really looking forward to the Jet Li / Donnie Yen fight.
So back when I started this site in April, I wrote up some of my thoughts after revisiting one of the classics from my youth, Once Upon a Time in China. I’ve wanted to get down to business and watch the much-loved sequel since then, but only recently got around to it. Wow, I gotta say… this one is even better than the first. It’s possible that I feel this way because I recently watched the original and I had less of an adjustment period, but whatever, Once Upon a Time in China 2 is a damn pleasing film.
While the recently reviewed Ip Man was set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Once Upon a Time in China 2 takes place just after the First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan has been handed over to Japan and outside influence is getting stronger. The White Lotus clan is angry that Westerners have come to China and brought all their nasty wares with them. They wish to kill the foreigners and rid the land of everything related to them. Led by the Immortal Kung (Hung Yan-Yan), they are ultra-nationalists and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.
Meanwhile, Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and his disciple Leung Foon (Max Mok) travel to a medical conference in Canton via train, attempting to consume a Western steak meal while on their trip. Things don’t go so well, as Fei-Hung may have accepted Western culture to a degree in the first film, he still hasn’t mastered all of its idiosyncrasies such as fork use. The back-to-back pairing of the White Lotus opening with this train scene is the first of many instances where nationalist Chinese ideals are placed side-by-side with the integration of Western and Chinese cultures. It’s all done very well and it is an exciting theme to consider while viewing the picture. The film never feels like strict propaganda, because Wong Fei-Hung is the middle ground that most propaganda lacks. He represents old-world Chinese culture, but yet he realizes that outlandish murder of the foreigners is not the answer.
The first half of the film stays mostly within the realm of drama, painting the picture of the times and laying out all the characters and their faction allegiances. This is more than a simple Wong Fei-Hung tale though, as the seeds that led to the dawn of the Chinese Republic are sown here, and if one is to believe the film, then Wong Fei-Hung had a pretty major role in helping with the cause. Maybe not, but it’s fun to watch as Fei-Hung consorts with Sun Yat-Sen, the Founding Father of the Chinese Republic.
The second half is where most of the action resides, including the excellent fight within the White Lotus lair, one of most fantastic, fun sequences to watch in recent memory. Jet Li absolutely annihilates the competition with style, humor and a real flair for the dramatic. He skillfully defends himself from the clan and then calls out the Immortal Kung, who backflips his way to the top of five teetering tables in true kung-fu film form. If you thought the fight against the entire clan was good, wait till you see the masterful piece of work that is Fei-Hung vs. Kung. The wirework is very well done and the hits are hard. Wong Fei-hung systematically destroys everything in Kung’s playbook and we are left to simply laugh at how badass it all is when Fei-Hung jumps to the Lotus clan sign and poses, taunting the supposed immortal leader into following. This is my favorite sequence in the film. It is a non-stop chunk of around fifteen minutes of pure inventive action.
You might be wondering, what about Donnie Yen? Isn’t he in this movie too? He sure is and he is a bad motherfucker. He gets a few martial arts scenes sprinkled throughout the film and none of them disappoint. The final fight with Jet Li is tense and exciting. Anytime two true greats of the screen are in one scene it can easily be less than it should have been, but in Once Upon a Time in China 2, Jet and Donnie deliver the goods. The fight is primarily staff based so set your expectations accordingly if you are more of a fan of hand-to-hand. I don’t think it matters too much because this fight is nothing short of spectacular.
Incredibly well directed by Tsui Hark, Once Upon a Time in China 2 is not only one of the greatest martial arts sequels of all-time, it is one of the true greats of the genre, sequel or not. I defy any martial film fan to watch this and not be so pumped up that they sing the Wong Fei-Hung theme as they practice their shadowless kicks on the way to take this DVD out of the player. Highly recommended.