MOVIE REVIEW : ‘China II’: History in a Martial Arts Fantasy


Tsui Hark’s rousing “Once Upon a Time in China II” (at the Monica 4-Plex) is more a true sequel than most Hong Kong series pictures, which tend to be self-contained. You need to know going in that its hero, Wong Fei-Hong (again the boyish, personable Jet Lee), was an actual figure, a Canton physician and a proponent for Chinese independence who became a folk hero in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You also need to know that the reason his lovely relative, his contemporary, but called Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), dresses Western-style is because she has been a student in Britain. In short, it’s a big help to have seen the first film in the ongoing series.

This qualification aside, “China II” is a terrific example of dealing with history within a martial arts fantasy context. It’s 1895, a turbulent time in the rapidly waning Manchu dynasty. China has just lost Taiwan to Japan, and in Canton the ever-expanding mystical martial arts White Lotus sect declares its intent to free the poor, but concentrates on driving all foreigners out of China. Now the Chinese had plenty of reasons for wishing to do so after so many concessions had been granted to rapacious foreign nations, but Tsui Hark and his co-writers take a progressive view, condemning xenophobia for its own sake and realizing that it would be good for the nation to come to terms with the modern world. A century later the issues the film raises are still pertinent.

Not surprisingly, Wong Kei-Hong finds himself in the midst of escalating strife. He, Aunt Yee and his manservant Leung Fu (Max Mok) are determined to save a group of schoolchildren whose foreign-language school has been burnt to the ground by the White Lotus; meanwhile, Wong meets none other than Sun Yat-Sen and lends his support for Sun’s cause in overthrowing the decadent monarchy and turning China into a republic. Although he is eventually cast as the bad guy, you really do have to have some sympathy for Kung (Hung Yin-Yin), Canton’s military commander, who simultaneously is charged with protecting the foreigners, curbing the White Lotus and repressing Sun’s rebel movement.


Tsui Hark directs with his customary verve, and the martial arts battles are suitably spectacular. “Once Upon a Time in China II,” however, is perhaps most notable for the way in which the director and his greatly gifted cinematographer, Arthur Wong, mask an overly modest budget--various Victorian interiors are definitely dime-store--with a dramatic play of light and shadow and a crisp sense of composition. “China II” is a blithe, often humorous action entertainment that nevertheless manages to illuminate a crucial period in China’s history.

‘Once Upon a Time in China II’

Jet Li: Wong Fei-Hong

Rosamund Kwan: Aunt Yee

Max Mok: Leung Fu

Hung Yin-Yin: Kung

A Rim Films release of a Golden Harvest production. Director Tsui Hark. Producer Tsui Hark, Ng See-Yuen. Executive producer Raymond Chow. Screenplay by Tsui Hark, Chan Tin-Suen, Cheung Tan. Cinematographer Arthur Wong. Editor Mak Chi-Sin. Costumes Chiu Kwok-Sun. Music Richard Yuen, Johnny Njo. Production design Eddie Ma. Action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. In Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

Times-rated Mature. Times guidelines: standard martial arts violence.