's (1991) sequel to his massively successful and impressive Once Upon a Time in China
, set in Canton
in 1895, featuring Jet Li
again as real-life Chinese folk-hero Wong Fei Hung
fighting racial prejudice and the dying remains of the corrupt imperial regime, reeling under the cultural impact of British colonialism.
The success of the previous film in the series guaranteed a lavish budget, and director Hark has ample skills to make use of this, with every scene shot with skill, and looking pretty as a picture.
As we see from the opening scenes, showing Wong, his loyal, if earthy, assistant/student Leung Foon (Ah Fu in some subtitle versions, played by Benny Mok), and westernised sweetheart Aunt Yee / "Aunt 13" (Rosamund Kwan) grappling with the complexities of train travel and western cuttlery, the times are changing.
Wong Fei Hung (a famous doctor, as well as unrivalled martial artist) travels to Canton to attend a medical conference - an exchange of knowledge with western doctors (he wows them with his ability to suppress knee-tapping reflexes using acupuncture). But proceedings are disrupted by the White Lotus Society, a reactionary bunch of fraudulent cultists who are exploiting the natural hostility to change and foreign influences in order to make a bid for power. "White Lotus will save the world! Death to all foreigners!" is their slogan. They attack the conference and Wong Fei Hung saves the life of doctor Sun Yat Sen, also in attendence (the real-life Sun Yat Sen would go on to found the Chinese revolution, starting in Canton in that very year.)
Unusually for a Hong Kong martial arts flick, the British don't come off too badly in this film - stupid, prejudiced, and not too hot in a fight, but not actually malicious or evil. As the cultists escalate their campaign of senseless violence against all things foreign, Fei Hung and his companions are holed up in the British Consul (where they've retreated to find a refuge for a bunch of kids who are in danger because they've been learning to speak western languages).
After the local army chief (Donnie Yen in excellent form), whose loyalties are to the army first, and represents the honourable part of the old imperial government, has allowed the White Lotus infantry access to the consul (against his better judgement) in order to oust the rebels (including, as it turns out, Wong's friend Sun Yat Sen and his colleague Mr Luke) the needless loss of life finally becomes too much for Wong, and he heads off to their temple to beat them all up.
Up to this point, as an action movie, the film has been a little lacklustre, with only the odd fight to liven things up (though Wong's sternly moral character is shown nicely, with some pleasant humour, the critical historical moment is brought out effectively, and Hark's cinematography, particularly his brilliant use of colour and lighting, is up to the usual high-art standards, aesthetically). But once Fei Hung starts to take apart the White Lotus inner sanctum, ultimately duelling their deranged (if acrobatic) high-priest, Kung, we get stunning action, stirring symbolism and moral heroics, and the odd guffaw, all the way to the end of the film - a good 40 minutes at least.
For the final showdown, Wong takes on Donnie Yen's army chief for a dazzling (and incredibly high-speed) battle with poles and Yen's deadly looking cloth-whip (Yen can do some jaw-dropping things with rope-type weapons, and he lets rip nicely here.)
The choreography is done by Yuen Woo Ping, and features a little more wire work than is to my taste, but it's superbly shot, amazingly inventive, brilliantly executed, and Li, as always when working under a choreographer that knows his business, never looks less than perfect in the fights.