October 11, 2002 -- When I rented this DVD, I thought I was getting "Once Upon a Time in China." It turned out to be the first sequel instead. Usually sequels are no damned good, so I was apprehensive. This one is an exception to the rule. It is a great-looking film with top-notch martial arts sequences. The acting isn't anything to write home about and the plot has a hint of that old Chinese inscrutability, but, unlike most martial arts films, it actually does have a plot. Anyway, you see these kinds of films for the fights, and the fights are fantastic in this film, right up there with "Iron Monkey" and "Fist of Legend."
The first three films in this six-part series are all quite similar. They deal with a turbulent period of Chinese history around the end of the 19th century when China was trying to deal with several major foreign powers. It was also trying to deal with the industrial revolution that seemed to be leaving China behind. In addition, all three films star a young Jet Li ("Romeo Must Die") as legendary martial artist-doctor Wong Fei-hung. These films were made long before Jet Li became a star in Hollywood. All three films are directed by Tsui Hark. Two of the three share the same writers and the same martial arts coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping (also the fight coordinator for "Iron Monkey," "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Several actors appear in all three films, including Li and Rosamund Kwan (who plays "Aunt 13," also referred to as Shao Yun, or "Aunt Yee"). The three films also share some of the same music on the soundtrack. The second film in the series is the best of the three, followed by the first and then the third.
I'm not sure when the story is set, but the only date given in the movie (in English at any rate) is 1895. However, the story does make reference to the Boxers (of the Boxer rebellion, named after a group of rebels calling themselves the Righteous and Harmonious Fists). The thing is, the Boxers didn't start rebelling until 1899, at least according to Encarta. The story also has Sun Yat-sen (who would later found the Republic of China following the revolution) as a character, too. It places him in Canton in 1895, but according to history, he was in Hong Kong that year, not Canton, so maybe the film is depicting a different period of time, or maybe it is just being creative with the facts. Anyway, Canton was in big turmoil during the period of time the film is set (whenever that was) and violence was erupting all over the place.
We pick up the story with Wong Fei-hung rolling into Canton on a really neat looking old train with his comic relief sidekick Leung Foon (played by Siu Chung Mok) and Shao Yun (Rosamund Kwan) who, for some reason is referred to as "Aunt 13" throughout nearly the whole film (she is also referred to as Aunt Yee in some credits for this film). If anyone knows why she is referred to as "Aunt 13" would you please tell me. It must be some mysterious oriental thing. The trio gets into trouble immediately after getting off the train in Canton when the aunt with the unlucky number is attacked by a mob because she took a photograph (using magnesium flash powder to attract attention) and because she is wearing western clothing. It seems a cult calling itself the White Lotus Sect is attacking all foreigners and is urging the public to do the same.
We immediately see that Wong Fei-hung is nobody to mess with as he punches and kicks his way through the angry mob. Bodies fly everywhere. Later, the trio manages to get into more trouble by rescuing a bunch of students from a school which teaches foreign languages. It seems the mob also wants to attack the students (aged about six). The baker's dozen aunt manages to hide the children inside the British Consulate, but the White Lotus Sect, aided by General Lan (Donnie Yen) of the Manchu imperial government, tries to get into the consulate and attack the fugitives, which by this time includes Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen himself is a rebel, but apparently the White Lotus Sect is aligned with the Manchu Dynasty, so the rebels inside the consulate find themselves in conflict with the sect. This leads to all kinds of fighting, with the climax being a showdown at White Lotus Sect headquarters between Wong Fei-hung and the head Lotus himself, some tough dude named Kung (Xin Xin Xiong, who choreographed the fight scenes in "The Musketeer"). It is one whale of a fight, too, with all kinds of wire stunts.
The fights are spectacular. They are staged and directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the best in the business. The cinematography by Arthur Wong is excellent. The editing, always important in this kind of film, is also excellent (Mak Chi-sin was the editor). Interesting lighting and tinted filters are used to heighten the drama of some scenes. The production values are very high in the film with great set design, art direction (by Eddie Ma) and elaborate costumes. This looks like a high budget film. It was directed by Tsui Hark, who directed the first three films of this series. I got most of the film credits information off the DVD, some from the Internet Movie Database and some from web sites specializing in martial arts films. Unfortunately, most of the credits for this film are written in Chinese and most are not translated into English, so I had to scrape together what information I could from a variety of sources. This film rates a B.
The DVD I saw is distributed by Columbia-Tristar and Media Asia Group. The audio and video quality is better than most Hong Kong releases, but that isn't saying much. It features not only the original Cantonese soundtrack, but English, French and Mandarin as well (all in Dolby (tm) digital mono sound. Available subtitles are English, Spanish and French. I saw it in Cantonese with English subtitles (which are easy to read because they are thoughtfully located in the dark part of the wide screen letterbox picture (where all subtitles should be located). Being able to hear the film in its original language is almost always preferable to hearing a dubbed soundtrack (except for cartoons, which are all dubbed anyway). Although the video quality is not bad on the DVD, it is reportedly better on the English dubbed version of the film on the same DVD. Why is that? One theory is that the English dubbed version of the film takes up so much of the DVD's capacity that there isn't enough room left over for a decent Cantonese or Mandarin version of the film. The English dubbed version is not just another audio track, but a whole different version of the film, with some footage chopped out. This feature is common to all three DVDs of the "Once Upon a Time in China" trilogy. This is one "bonus feature" that should have been discarded in favor of better video quality on the original cut. Thus, the preferred version of the film, the original theatrical cut and the original soundtrack, suffers because of the presence of the chopped-down English dubbed version of the film. This was a bad decision on the part of Columbia Tri-Star. Purists will want to find another version of this DVD. The aspect ratio of the widescreen format is 2.35:1. The DVD also has an English theatrical trailer and English text information on some of the cast members. This is a better than average DVD for this genre, but it should have been better. It rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.