As the Dowager Empress of China surveys the army of lion dancers assembled for her entertainment, she conducts a conversation with her right hand man, discussing what is to be done about the influence of foreigners on her country. Keep them fighting amongst themselves is her advice, and then China will emerge as the strongest of the lot, but keep such strategy under your hat for there are plenty of other nations which are drawing up their own plans as well. Meanwhile, man of medicine Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) is arriving in the capital with his distant relative Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and sidekick Fung Loon (Mok Sui Ching), the former bearing a new gift...
Which is a movie camera in an example of Western modernity which Wong is not so keen on, the theme of resistance against new invention and culture being the overriding one in this, the third in the Once Upon a Time in China franchise which revived the character to great box office returns and a cult following in the West. Although it seemed on the surface to be anti-West, as others had misinterpreted the two previous instalments, director and co-writer Tsui Hark stated we were not to take the hero's pronouncements at face value and acknowledge he was a protagonist who was not always right in his opinions, so it becomes apparent early on that Wong resists that camera because he is jealous of Aunt Yee's affections.
There's a Russian character, you see (perhaps an in-joke with experimental classic Man with a Movie Camera), Tumanovsky (John Wakefield) who Aunt Yee has become closer to than Wong would like, and as the reason they've returned home is partly to tell his father Master Wong (Lau Shun) about the marriage plans you can understand his misgivings. Although you can also understand the misgivings of those around them when they're not sure how they can get away with a wedding when they're actually related, no matter how far apart in that respect they are, the source of a spot of comedy in a film not short of humour, at least in the earlier stages before the action begins to predominate.
This brings us to the other half of the plot, where the lion contest, or Chinese dragon dancers as you may know them better, are the jumping off point for the combat, or a fairly large amount of it as rival schools use the competition as an excuse for a massive punch-up - while still wearing the costumes, which begins to look like a huge brawl on the set of H.R. Pufnstuf. The main bad guy has in his employ one seemingly invincible Iron Foot (Xiong Xin-Xin), who beats up Master Wong and looks set to do the same to his son until he is foiled in one setpiece by some runaway horses, breaking his leg. Once he's down and defenceless, others waste no opportunity in getting their revenge, which has them literally kicking a man when he's down.
This throws up an interesting plot point about forgiveness, as Iron Foot is taken reluctantly under Wong Fei-Hung's wing, and he sees he was in the wrong for this school are actually a bunch of nice guys after all, which brings about a truce. Stuff like that lent more astuteness to a storyline which tended to present its action scenes as not only a riot of colour, but actual riots as well, a far cry from the expertly choreographed fighting of the previous entries, and marking it down a notch or two in quality. Not that Part III was worth rejecting completely, as there was plenty to enjoy, Li and Kwan's warm, quirky rapport especially, and for all the chaotic drawbacks once push came to shove (and punch and kick) for the players it was possible to appreciate while the heights of what came before were missed, Tsui Hark had enough of an idea of what he wanted to convey - the thorny foreign politics of China, for one - that this was by no means a waste of time. Music by Lap Wu Wai.
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.
Uneven and ideologically muddled compared with the masterly part two, this still has moments of sporadic brilliance. After this Jet Li had a falling out with Tsui Hark. He revived his Wong Fei Hung character for schlockmeister Wong Jing in Last Hero in China. Hark made two further sequels to Once Upon a Time in China starring the much underrated Zhao Wen-Zhou. The two eventually patched up their differences though it was noticeable that Sammo Hung, not Hark directed Once Upon a Time in China & America (Hark produced, co-scripted and directed second unit, though).