Story: Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) goes to Canton with his "Aunt" Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and his student Leung Foon (Max Mok) in order to attend a
meeting of doctors from around the world. There he makes the acquaintance of doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Zhang Tielin), however, he doesn't get the
chance to deepen his conversation with him as there are sudden riots in the city. The White Lotus Cult, lead by the immortal Kung (Hung Yan-Yan),
fights the western powers who seem to overrun the country more and more. Their actions are quite radical, though, so that Wong Fei-Hung joins the
fight against them, eventually. For Commander Lan (Donnie Yen), who also leads his soldiers against the White Lotus, Sun Yat-Sen is an even bigger
problem. Lan respects Wong Fei-Hung, but clashes with him when he gets to know that Wong doesn't just protect Sun but also one of Sun's friends,
Luke (David Chiang), who both want to see China turned into a republic. Everything points to an inevitable fight between Wong Fei-Hung and the
White Lotus as well as against Commander Lan.
Review: Tsui Hark's sequel of the classic is regarded as the best installment in the series by most fans. To be honest, I can't really
agree. It's true that part two of the series looks a bit more coherent in general, yet it's still everything but a well-balanced mix of comedy,
martial arts and history lesson. The fact that the movie centers more and more around the political aspects towards the end, even though simply in
a roughly sketched fashion, also becomes annoying in the respect that the film actually holds too much propaganda. Sun may not be outright glorified,
but it's still striking how much the movie shifts the character into a positive light. On the other hand, this doesn't really come as a surprise, as
he is often called the Founding Father of China and this even though he was fighting for a democratic China and therefore is most of all revered by the
Taiwanese. Anyway, the relationship of China and "Dr. Sun" is actually a bit more complicated. In my opinion, this supporting character clearly shows
that the film has gotten too political.
Surely you can argue why someone would criticize a martial arts movie for the fact that its story is too "profound", especially since the "Once Upon a Time in China" series is well-known for its political-historical focus. However, there are just too many liberties concerning the historical accurateness for us to simply overlook them. Still, there is one good thing about the comparison of nationalism and the western way of living: Wong Fei-Hung. He somehow stands right in the middle, being a man who can't make use of western innovations and is building on China's traditions, on the other hand realizes that a change is inevitable and that the bloody fight against westerners isn't a solution to the problem. Thereofore, he is something like a center line which the viewer can relate to, even though Wong later on clearly favors the side opposing the radical nationalists.
The White Lotus, the treaty of Shimonoseki that has been signed after the end of the first Sino-Japanese war and stated that Taiwan was to be given to Japan, Sun Yat-Sen, who in 1895 was forced to flee the country, all of this historical basic data has a certain recognition value to those interested in history, however, those who don't know anything about the change the country was undergoing at that time will only find little interesting to remember in the historical chaos depicted here. Nevertheless, the story remains especially fascinating as it centers around true historical facts, even though the film has some flaws concerning the narration. For example, the movie doesn't really have a red thread running through it and later on we even have to ask ourselves how exactly Commander Lan has become one of the bad guys and why Wong has such a personal fondness for Sun Yat-Sen and whether he helps him only for that reason alone or actually has his own political view on things.
Apart from these problems there is a big improvement to the prequel and that is the fights. For two reasons. Firstly, Yuen Woo-ping did the fight choreography and secondly Jet Li and Donnie Yen clash on screen! Two martial arts experts in their prime and so it isn't surprising that their duels are really breathtaking. The use of wires thankfully has been decreased a bit but really memorable thanks to its inventiveness is the fight of Wong Fei-Hung against the leader if the White Lotus Cult which takes place on tables stacked on top of each other in a physically impossible way. This duel simply delivers a lot of fun and the prelude which features Wong facing the cult members with a good portion of humor all together are more entertaining than the fights in the first installment. As the choreography is very fancy it's also a pity that the movie is played at double the normal speed during those scenes so that you can't really appreaciate every move.
"Once Upon a Time in China 2" naturally has its flaws where many movies of the genre and time have their problems. The drama is never really convincing. Why some sudden tears of children is supposed to create an emotional bond between the audience and Luke remains questionable, the characters are shallow so that we can't really shed any tear when they bite the dust, to see a child die is something that just doesn't go along with western viewing experience and the drama as a whole simply isn't convincing or captivating. Nevertheless, this pseudo history lesson remains entertaining especially because of its outstanding fights and for all those who are constantly crying out for a little bit more story there are at least some serious attempts to deliver it. The emotional bond to the characters was tighter in the prequel, though, and so I personally regard part two as a bit inferior to the first. Nonetheless, a recommendable movie for martial arts fans.