Once Upon A Time In China II (1992)

Directed by
One of the finest sequels ever made?
Reviewed by Simon on 2020-03-27

Set some unspecified amount of time after the first film, Wong Fei-Hung travels to Canton for an East meets West medical conference and finds a city in turmoil. The White Lotus Cult is rampaging through the streets, channelling nationalist fervour and claims of supernatural power into a crusade against the encroachment of Western powers on Chinese land ... and then channelling that into a business selling lucky charms and spells to an increasingly anxious populace.

13th Aunt's continuing infatuation with Western clothes and technology soon earns the ire of the White Lotus Cult, and causes Wong Fei-Hung to get involved with the local politics. This in turn leads him to meet a couple of revolutionaries looking to institute a republican democracy in China and the local governor (Donnie Yen) who is determined to fight for the traditional imperial society.

Once Upon A Time In China was an epochal film, a box office smash that reignited the martial arts genre and catapulting Jet Li to superstar status overnight. Obviously it required a sequel, and local tradition dictated that it should be churned out in a month or two to capitalise on the popularity of the original. Somehow Tsui Hark was able to resist following this tradition, and audiences had to wait a full nine months for the sequel - which turned out to be a lavish production that is arguably even more epic than the first film.

The decision not to rush (relatively speaking) seems to have paid dividends, as OUATIC2 was even more successful at the box office and walked away with the lion's share of the 1992 Hong Kong Film awards. It is loved as much if not more than OUATIC amongst fans of the genre across the world.

Watching it some 28 years later I don't think it holds up quite as well as the first film, but it is still a rousing affair with some spectacular fight scenes. Yuen Wo-Ping replaces his brother as the lead action director, and does his best to out-do the classic ladder fight from the first film with a battle between Jet Li and Xiong Xin-Xin set atop a stack of tables where the unspoken rule is that if either fighter touches the floor they will have lost. This is a pretty phenomenal scene, but it is a little too over the top and implausible and looks a bit too fake to a 21st century eye.

Speaking of XIong Xin-Xin, the lovely Eureka bluray release makes his role as Jet Li's stunt double rather easy to spot - he has such a distinctive face it's hard to miss when the camera catches it. I wonder how much of the table fight was actually him fighting himself! It's a bit of a curious choice to give a major role to your lead actor's stunt double, especially when he has the distinctive features of a Xiong Xin-XIn.

The other major fight scenes in the film are two face-offs between Jet and Donnie Yen, and these fights are genuinely stunning. Donnie clearly felt like he had something to prove (to his ego, if nobody else) and goes all out in the battles, which causes Jet to respond in kind and leads to both performers pulling off some amazing moves - the speed, power and grace with which they battle is absolutely grade A stuff. It seems that Jet must have largely recovered from the injuries he sustained when filming OUATIC by the time these fights were filmed, as he doesn't seem to be doubled too much in these fights.

Outside the fights the film has clearly aged (as have we all), and although the cinematography and set design is often beautiful (and oh that soundtrack!) it does all look a bit cheap by more modern standards.

In between the history and politics the story is padded out with an exceedingly chaste love triangle between Fei-Hung, 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and Leung Foon (Max Mok steps into Yuen Biao's shoes for the role this time around, and is probably a better fit for them). This is sometimes rather charming, sometimes a little cringeworthy, but thankfully doesn't take up too much screen time.

This film and its predecessor were two of the films most responsible for developing my long lasting love affair with Hong Kong cinema, and even acknowledging that it perhaps hasn't aged all that well (true of so many early 90's Hong Kong films, unfortunately) it is still a must-see if you're at all interested in martial arts cinema ... or wildly inaccurate takes on Chinese history and a nostalgia for the republic that almost was.