China in the late nineteenth century, and the doctor and pillar of the community Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) is travelling to a medical conference by train, not something he is used to, especially the rocking motion of the carriages. His right hand man Leung Foon (Mok Siu Chung) is having even more trouble, and the suggestion that their companion Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) makes that they should eat lunch there is met with polite bemusement. But things will grow more serious as they reach their destination, for there are insurgents in China with murder on their minds...
The first Once Upon a Time in China movie was such a hit that a sequel was the obvious choice, and for some audiences director and co-writer Tsui Hark surpassed himself with this second instalment. If it's not better, it's certainly its predecessor's equal mixing up the same amount of comedy, drama and action, with even a little tentative romance that means some scenes are surprisingly sweet and touching if you're prepared to accept that they're intermingled with other sequences of people getting their heads kicked in by elaborately physical methods.
Jet Li was back, and as charming as ever as Fei-Hung found himself in the middle of a tense situation concerning some Chinese ultra-patriots known as the followers of the White Lotus. They spend their time either participating in ceremonies designed to show off their physical prowess and near-invincibility thanks to the idol they worship, or rabble rousing against the Westerners who run things in conjunction with the Chinese authorities. Fei-Hung is not entirely convinced by Western customs himself, but he respects them and the fact that Aunt Yee is a convert, which proves tricky when they arrive in the city and she is singled out for her English-style clothes and attacked.
Fei-Hung is not amused, and it's as if Tsui Hark was stung by erroneous criticism that his initial part of this series was anti-Western; there certainly had been, and continue to be, jingoistic Chinese movies, but these were more level-headed, and that was particularly apparent in this as it adopted an even-handed view of its country's politics and its place in the world. Don't start thinking this was going to be some dry tract about international diplomacy, however, as not only was there some very funny humour for variety, but some truly excellent martial arts combat mounted in finely crafted suspense settings.
Once we have established the White Lotus are dangerous troublemakers, the ante is upped as they begin to turn deadly and destructive, which leads to Fei-Hung springing into action to defend those the bigots are trying to wipe out with their hypocritical claims that they are implementing peace to the land. There is a tense, Night of the Living Dead siege about halfway through this where our hero faces off against a horde of white-clad fanatics with nothing but his fists and feet as his weapons, saving a bunch of Chinese kids as well as the moderates and Westerners who are trapped there. Of course, not all the local authorities are quite as reasonable as they seem, and Fei-Hung has to beat the divisive elements in the army as well, which results in some of the best fighting of Li's career as she squares off against Donnie Yen in one of his definitive bad guy roles. Ending on a lovely moment of romance after all that violence, this second part represented one of the best of its style.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.