Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992)

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“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong

“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung

“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun

Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar

I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself

In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.

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Wong Fei-hung, accompanied by Aunt 13 and Leung Foon (now played by Max Mok, who will play the role in the next four films in the series), travel by train to Canton, on the Pearl River Delta, 15 miles northeast of Foshan, for a medical conference. At the same time, the White Lotus sect is launching their branch of the Boxer Rebellion, in which fanatical anti-Western gangs attacked embassies and businesses throughout China, reportedly spurred on by the belief that their kung fu could stop bullets (see also Chang Cheh’s The Boxer Rebellion and Lau Kar-leung’s Legendary Weapons of China and The Spiritual Boxer). Aunt 13, wearing her Western dress and attempting to photograph a group of Boxers marching in protest of the Treaty of Shimonoskei (which ceded Taiwan to Japan), becomes a target of the gang. And when Wong’s conference is attacked as well, the three heroes attempt to make a quick exit out of town, but are delayed by the need to save a bunch of children.

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At the medical conference, Wong meets and befriends Sun Yat-sen, who, as the head of the Revive China Society, is about to launch a rebellion against the Qing government, with the help of his top aide, Lu Haodong, played by 1970s Shaw Brothers star David Chiang. Sun and Lu are being hunted by the local Manchu commander (Donnie Yen), and in helping them, Wong becomes a target of the authorities as well.

So, once again, Tsui’s Wong becomes the center point of competing forces attempting to transform China: the Boxers clinging desperately to tradition; the Manchu clinging desperately to authoritarian power; the Republicans, trying to force a Western-style democracy. But unlike in the first film, Wong doesn’t absorb and reconcile the contradictions, rather he chooses a side and fights against the regressive forces. He angrily confronts the Boxers in their temple, mocking their religious belief and exposing their leader as a sham. He helps Lu sneak back into Manchu controlled territory to destroy a list of rebels (which actually occurred: Lu was captured by the Qing in the process of destroying his roster, he was executed some weeks later), defeats Donnie and brings Sun the Blue Sky with a White Sun flag Lu had designed, which will become the flag of Sun’s party, the Kuomintang.

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This isn’t Wong the integrationist, attempting to unify the nation through the sheer power of his moral example. He takes a side in this fight and the choice isn’t between whether to rebel or not, but in which way. Donnie’s commander initially seems OK, but is ultimately revealed to be purely evil, and with the Boxer leader given nothing to do but be exposed as a fraud, there’s no counterweight to Wong’s sense of moral superiority that the tragic Iron-Vest Yim provided in the first film. Instead, the sequel’s villains are variations on the first’s purely evil Americans: men of violence and greed. With the decked stacked in this way, Wong can’t help but side with Lu and the kindly Dr. Sun, who go to great lengths to save lives but never take any themselves. This makes for stirring propaganda, and is a defiantly provocative move for Tsui, celebrating Sun’s Republicanism three years after Tiananmen Square and five years before the Handover. This version of a robust yet pluralistic China is bookended by armies of men (always and only men) strengthening themselves on the beach in a blood-orange dawn. The first time, it’s the dream of Wong Fei-hung, daydreaming out the train window and immediately follows a Boxer ritual prologue. The second time, it follows Sun’s unveiling of the KMT flag: Wong’s dream made real. Perhaps.

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