Sunday, May 23, 2004

Once Upon A Time In China IV (Huang Fei-hung zhi sei: Wang zhe zhi feng )

* * * (out of four) (incomplete)
Seen 22 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

... and this is the point where the series basically goes direct-to-video, or at least it would have in the US. The original director has stepped back to a producer role, one of the main supporting characters is not present (but has been replaced with her previously unmentioned sister), the main character has been recast, and the story has gotten somewhat silly. In some ways, it seems like this was cranked out by the second unit while the sets were still up and costumes still around.

Ignore that pedigree, though, and this is a pretty enjoyable movie. While it more or less ignores that Wong Fei-Hung (here played by Man Cheuk Chiu, who was a mere 19 at the time) was a healer first and a martial artist second, it does bring the conflict between China and the foreign nations that were starting to exert more influence on China closer to the fore. It does so in a reasonably even-handed way; though there are nasty generals plotting to ... well, let's leave the plot aside for a moment ... the movie doesn't indict foreigners as necessarily evil, and does point up that outside influences generally improve a nation. Nobody is reading the newspaper published by Aunt Yee's previously unmentioned sister May (Jean Wang), also educated in America, because of widespread illiteracy.

But the story... Oh, my, the story. The story involves the evil representatives of a variety of nations (I spotted British, American, Japanese, and Italian flags) setting up a Lion Dancing tournament, only their lion costumes are huge, elaborate monsters armed with deadly weapons, with machine guns guarding the "bait" at the middle of the arena. I can't say it makes a lot of sense; not only do Wong Fei-hung and his friends immediately recognize it as an obvious trap but still decide to walk right into it, but who really thinks these competing nations would really work together to, what, kill a few Lion Dancers? Sure, they're good martial artists, but are they really a huge threat when you've got artillery? Meanwhile, a clan of female assassins is attacking foreigners in Beijing, so Wong and his friends must subdue them...

It's silly, and maybe fighting girls isn't really what you want to see from this folk hero, but it's still mostly fun. The comic relief is typically over-the-top, but the wire-assisted action scenes are colorful and fast-paced, and goofy in a fun way. I may have squawked that "dominoes don't do that" during one scene, but it was entertaining.

Unfortunately, the projector bulb crapped out near the end (on the plus side: free Coolidge ticket), so I remain in suspense as to whether or not Wong Fei-Hung and company survived that final Lion King tournament, although I assume things went well, with there being two more sequels.

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