Sunday, May 16, 2004

Once Upon A Time In China III (Wong Fei-hung tsi sam: Siwong tsangba)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2004 at Cooldige Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

It happens. A movie does well, and then has a sequel that's also very good. The studio then smells "franchise", and starts spitting more follow-ups out. They're not as good, and they start to stray from the original films (almost always incorporating more comedy), but they've got enough of what attracted the audience to the originals to keep their interest.

The Once Upon A Time In China movies (simply called Wong Fei-Hung in Hong Kong) are centered on China coming under the influence of Europe and America as seen through the eyes of Wong Fei-Hung, a Cantonese healer and master of the martial arts. Wong is an actual historical figure, though the movies have treated him more as a folk hero. Here, Wong (played by Jet Li) travels to Beijing to tour his father's new medicine factory, just as the Empress Dowager announces a Lion Dancing competition, which a local crime lord intends to dominate. She also intends to pit the foreign powers against each other, though little comes of this plot thread. Along for the ride are Wong's assistant Fu and his "aunt" (apparently adopted by his grandfather) and romantic interest Peony Yee (Rosamund Kwan).

Here, the East-versus-West conflict is mostly reduced to a rivalry between Wong and a Russian diplomat named Tumanovsky; he and Yee had met while she was educated abroad. Yee is an avid phtographer, and the Russian gives her an early motion-picture camera, which irritates Wong and serves to capture a betrayal later. Wong's skill as a doctor is also given somewhat short shrift.

But, what about the fights? They're pretty good, if not quite up to the high standards set by director Tsui Hark with the series's first two installments. There's a little too much wire work, and the lion dancing serves to obscure the fighting somewhat. Still, Jet Li and Xin Xin Xiong (as rival-cum-partner Club Foot) are exceptionally skilled, and scenes such as Wong subduing an entire street fight armed with, basically, his jacket or fighting on a greasy floor against opponents wearing cleats are fun to watch. The results of some of these fights are a little bloodier than I remember the first two movies being, but it's mostly pretty well-done.

The Once Upon A Time In China series was starting to show a little wear with this installment; next week's Weekly Midnight Ass-Kicking is #4, and doesn't feature either Tsui Hark or Jet Li. It still has enough of what made the series great to be worth a look.


Matt S. said...

Wong Fei-Hing... same character that Jackie Chan played in the "Jui Kuen" movies?

Jason said...

Yep, as well as the son of the hero in Iron Monkey and the role Sammo Hung will be playing in Around the World in 80 Days this summer.