The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆下揚州] (1978)
AKA The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung Part II
Starring Lau Wing, Lee Kwan, Chiang Nan, Yueh Hua, Cheung Ying, Wang Sha, Wang Lai, Kara Hui, Hao Li-Jen, Lun Ga-Chun, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Shen, Yang Chi-Ching, Wang Han-Chen, Aai Dung-Gwa, Ku Wen-Chung, Shum Lo, Fanny Leung Maan-Yee
Directed by Li Han-Hsiang
Expectations: Pretty high, I liked the other ones.
The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung was director Li Han-Hsiang’s second film (of four) about the undercover monarch from Beijing traveling through South China. In my review of The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung, I surmised that even though Li’s film followed Wong Fung’s successful 1976 film, Emperor Chien Lung, he was in fact starting his own series (with roughly the same cast). Watching this sequel, I was almost 100% sure, and a few passages from the Hong Kong Film Archive’s Li Han-Hsiang, Storyteller affirmed my suspicions. There I also learned that Emperor Chien Lung has been something of a folk hero — in general and in the cinema — for many generations. For instance, Unique Film Productions, the first film company run by the Shaws, made a series of Chien Lung films from 1929–1931, and there were plenty others in the years leading to The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung. Jin Yong’s 1955/1956 serial novel The Book and the Sword — adapted in 1981 by Chor Yuen as The Emperor and His Brother — also re-framed the character and reignited interest in him.
Without a deep Chinese cultural knowledge in place, a movie like this is fairly impenetrable. Li’s writing often plays on Chinese language and culture, with the wit and comedy often coming directly from these elements (a standard of Cantonese-language comedy). Over the years I’ve learned to identify where these things happen, but I don’t always understand why they’re funny. It’s easy to overlook wordplay in a goofy Stephen Chow movie, where there are many other comedic elements in play, but here it’s almost entirely based on language/cultural satire. I was lucky if I made it more than a few minutes without being thrown out of the movie. The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung won the Golden Horse award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so it was regarded as a well-written piece of work, but I am absolutely the wrong person to critique it. I wish I looked at the HKFA book before watching the movie, but I felt confident I’d be fine with two previous films under my belt. Wong Fung’s film is much more accessible to a non-Chinese audience, though, and seeing it first altered my expectations of what Li’s films might contain. 😳