Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Once Upon a Time in China 2


Directed by: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Tsui Hark, Tin-suen Chan and Cheung Tan
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Donnie Yen

Still standing the test of time, Once Upon a Time in China 2 (OUATIC 2) is a classic that rightly deserves the praise it receives. A major accomplishment in the careers of both Jet Li and Donnie Yen, not to mention director, Tsui Hark, OUATIC 2 is a must for any martial arts fan and one of the best the genre has ever delivered. Li returns as legendary Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung. Continuing his adventures from the previous instalment, Wong and his trusty companions Foon (Siu Chung Mok) and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) find themselves going up against the fanatical White Lotus Society. A gang so apposed to Western influence and integration in China, they go to ridiculous lengths to keep their country pure. When the White Lotus extreme methods threaten the lives of a group of children, Wong decides its time to step in and restore his country’s pride by driving the fanatics out. While he is also somewhat opposed to total Western domination, Wong feels the two cultures can work side by side and that the White Lotus are misrepresenting his country and its people.

First off, if you are going to watch this film (and you should) then make sure it’s a pristine widescreen copy. Widescreen is the best (and only) way to watch OUATIC 2, as it captures the richness and beauty of the sumptuous sets and cinematography. So rich in period detail is the film, Tsui Hark has created a vivid world with ambitious sets that are just as awe inspiring as the fanciful martial arts. Hark (OUATIC, The Blade) demonstrates his skills as a director keeping a tight reign on the huge sets, the massive action, comedy and some strong social commentary, weaving it all into an intoxicating whole. He presents both sides to the situation of Western influence making its way into Eastern culture. Wong is neither opposed nor outright comfortable with Western ideals. The scenes of him and Foon riding a train and dealing with Western medicine for the first time are handled with gentle comedy as the two come to terms with a world they have never known. On the other side are the extreme beliefs of the White Lotus who will go to any lengths to keep China “pure”, even so far as harming children who dare to learn a foreign language. All this gives Hark’s film a deeper and more personal base for the characters motivations and the drive of the action.

Li, Yen, who plays a tough local magistrate, who may or may not be an ally to Wong, and the rest of the cast are on top form deftly switching from drama to comedy to action as the film tries to covers all bases. In a role he was born to play, Li brings charismatic grace to Wong making us always like him, even when he is a little hard on his loyal servant, Foon. His fighting skills are second to none and his fights with Donne Yen (which the film is most famous for) are some of the best Hong Kong has ever dished up. Choreographed by the legendary, Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey), their first confrontation is a short and sweet fight in what looks like a market square at night. Using Shaolin Lance (long poles), the fight is breakneck and brutal, long takes allowing us to marvel at the skill of the fighters. The two then rematch come the finale, again using poles, in a fight this reviewer feels is still one of the best put on screen. The two spin, jump, flip, kick, twist and knock each other silly in a confined, scaffolding like enclosure in an intense duel to the death. Remarkable stuff which makes the film compulsive viewing. Not forgetting Li’s extended wild fight with the leader of the White Lotus clan, the action and fighting in OUATIC 2 are top notch. It may be a little wire and weapon heavy (it would have been nice to see Li and Yen go fist to fist and boot to boot a little more) but the creativity of the fights is never less than extraordinary and a testament to the skill of those involved in their creation.

OUATIC 2 is classic epic kung fu entertainment. The tone may vary a little and the comedy could have been toned back somewhat (though is nowhere near as stratospheric as many other films of this genre) but OUATIC 2 is beautiful, exciting, martial arts heavy cinema that (dare I say it), is better than its even more classic predecessor. Essential.

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