The sequel to Once Upon a Time in China begins with Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) traveling to Canto with Aunt 13 (Rosamund Kwan) and Leung Foon (now played by Si Chung Mok), who was made his newest disciple at the end of the first film, in order to attend a seminar on Western and Eastern medicinal practices. This comparison between the different approaches to medicine is something that comes up repeatedly throughout the film, making for some compelling scenes. At one point, the two styles of practice are fused in order to save someone’s life.
It's at the seminar where he meets and befriends Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Zhang Tielin), who historically is the founder of the Republic of China. The addition of this character into the story makes the theme of nationalism much more explicit, at times even heavy handed, but doesn’t detract from the often light-hearted tone. The city of Canto proves to be a place full of turmoil however, as there's a fanatical cult called the White Lotus, the members of which are obsessed with ridding the country of the foreign presence. The introduction of this cult is what opens the film, even before the opening credits. The leader of the White Lotus, a priest named Kung (Xin Xin Xiong), claims to be bullet-proof. They display their hatred of all things Western by burning furniture, art, and even a Dalmatian (you know they’re evil when they accomplish what Cruella de Vil could not). This particular belief, as well as the goals of the cult, bare striking resemblances to the Yihequan, or the “Boxers” of the Boxer Rebellion; a violent rebellion between 1898 and 1901. The government officials, while mostly useless in the first film, are now depicted as antagonists to Wong Fei-hung. They take little to no action against the increasingly violent demonstrations of the White Lotus and devote their resources to hunting down members of the rebellion, namely Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his associate, Luke Ho-tung (David Chiang).
This time around, the plot is much simpler and more straightforward to follow. The White Lotus is a constant presence and shown to be linked to Commander Nap-Lan (played by action star Donnie Yen) early on. Jet Li is once again simply an incredible performer. His portrayal of Wong Fei-hung is a very likable and heroic character, but not in a way that makes him unrelatable. The way he interacts with a character like Aunt 13 is almost as fun to watch as the way he interacts with his enemies. Their would-be romance is still strained due to the awkward nature of their relation (in terms of titles), but there's a major development in this film that pushes them closer together, aside from the jealously that arises from Foon’s infatuation with her. They share a great scene in which he attempts to show her basic martial arts moves and struggles with how he should teach her, due to the physical nature and closeness of such teachings. Neither of the central villains, being Commander Nap-Lan and the insane Kung, is quite as colorful as those in the first. Kung is only shown in two scenes, the introductory scene and the duel with Wong Fei-hung. Nothing is ever revealed about who he is. Instead, the real effects of his threat level are revealed in the form of his maniacal and overzealous followers. Commander Nap-Lan on the other hand, is much more developed and does not begin as an enemy. His first meeting with Wong Fei-hung is a friendly duel in order to test out his skill (the duel is a lightning fast staff battle). Wong Fei-hung is someone he respects, but when circumstances place them at odds with each other, they get into a vicious battle over different ideals.
|Jet Li vs Donnie Yen|
While the acting is solid from all the main characters, what needs to be mentioned are the fight sequences. Once again, Tsui Hark films some brilliant fights. Although none quite match the ladder duel of the first film, there are some close contenders. Wong Fei-hung’s battle with the White Lotus is particularly memorable. It begins with Jet li single handedly fighting dozens of people at once, leading up to the inevitable duel with their leader. In this duel Kung has to fight to prove his god-like nature, so the entire fight is spent trying to keep from touching the ground. They do this by erecting a group of tables into a make shift “shrine” and attempt to keep them standing while simultaneously breaking them apart (and also defying the laws of physics and gravity). Something that also needs to be said is that this film has some unbelievable sets and set design. Tsui Hark loves to emphasize the big budget and spectacle of an epic film like this, so much time is spent showing off the locales and seemingly hundreds of extras (the market place is one particularly common set). The detail that goes into every set is extensive, but you accept that these are real places where real people live and work. The set for the final climactic duel between Wong Fei-hung and Commander Nap-Lan is amongst a multilevel rice storage area crammed full of bamboo poles, jutting out in all directions, just begging to be used as weapons. We also get to see the Commander’s skill turn a wet rag into a lethal weapon, capable of punching holes through a brick wall. This fight, as well as their earlier encounter, is a major highlight of this film, showcasing two unbelievably talented martial artists at the top of their game.
Overall, I prefer the hectic nature of the first film with its army of villains and variety of heroes, but Once Upon a Time in China II is at least as strong of a marital arts epic and a worthy sequel.