Thursday, 23 October 2014

Once Upon A Time in China 2 (1992)

When I reviewed the first Once Upon A Time in China, my main complaints were the length, the unfunny attempts at humour, and an uncomfortable degree of sexual violence.  I'm pleased to say that the sequel entirely avoids two of these pitfalls, and mostly avoids the third (the humour thing).  While it's not a flawless film, as I'll discuss shortly, I enjoyed it more than the original.

The film is set shortly after the first Sino-Japanese war, which was a humiliating defeat for the ruling Qing dynasty.  The territorial losses included Taiwan, while Korea, long a Chinese vassal, was transferred to Japan's sphere of control.  Public outcry within China was immense, and is represented in the film by the fanatical White Lotus Sect.  This group is modelled on the Boxers, who believed that magical charms could protect them from bullets (that didn't work so well for them in real life).

The high priest of the White Lotus however, really does seem to be immune to bullets, as he demonstrates in an extended sequence that begins the film.

We then switch to our main characters, in the main unfunny comedy sequence of the film.  They're headed to Canton, where the White Lotus are based, for a medical symposium.  Main character Wong Fei-Hung is a doctor as well as a master of kung fu.

Now based on all that you're probably expecting the White Lotus to be the main adversary of the film, with a climactic battle against the High Priest to end the film.  But you'd be wrong.  The White Lotus are going to be the main threat for most of the movie, but there's an entirely different villain still to be introduced.

One of the other doctors at the symposium, you see, is Sun Yat-Sen, who would ultimately lead the overthrow of the Qing.  He's lauded by the Chinese Communist Party today as "the Forerunner of the Revolution" and his enemies are not nationalist organisations like the White Lotus, but the corrupt Qing regime.  A cynical man (and I am one) might suggest that political motivations had a significant degree of influence on the plot.

Other than the awkwardness of a final enemy who is not even introduced until halfway through the film, however, this is a well-executed bit of wire-fu, with the usual inventive fight scenes of that genre.  And it also has comedy scenes that actually manage to be funny, at times, which is a big step up from the last film.

Definitely worth a look if martial arts action is at all your thing.

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