Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) journeys to Canton with his Aunt 13 (or Cousin Yee in the dubbed version) and his student Foon (Max Mok), to demonstrate acupuncture at a medical conference. Once there, however, Wong finds himself caught in several crossfires; a militant cult called the White Lotus Sect is killing all foreigners (and take a special dislike to the Westernized Aunt 13), but the government forces are more concerned with pro-democracy revolutionaries headed by Sun Yat Sen (another true-life historical figure). Commissioner Len (Donnie Yen), charged with capturing the rebels, is ambitious enough to work with the White Lotus to get what he wants; and Wong has not only befriended Dr. Sun, but he finds himself the steward of a group of children the cult wishes to kill for the crime of learning English.
Obviously, Once Upon A Time In China II tries to tell a more complex, epic story than the first installment, and this works both for and against it. It builds logically, if a bit hysterically, on the East vs. West clash that drove the first movie, but Wong Fei-hung almost seems a supporting character in the second act. After the first encounter with the cult, and until the sect's final attack on the British Embassy, the martial arts are at a minimum, which may puzzle people who see the words "JET LI" emblazoned on the front and have been trained to equate that with "non-stop action".
At that point, however, Wong decides he has to go to the White Lotus Temple and put a stop to this nonsense. The fight in the Temple more than makes up for the story-heavy middle; forklifts were probably needed to carry the copious amounts of whoop-ass Wong Fei-hung uncorks on the cultists and their seemingly-invincible leader. And if that's still not enough, Wong must then take on the corrupt Len, in a fight that is refreshingly devoid of the artificial speeding-up that has marred so many other Donnie Yen slugfests. Yen is a good fighter, and really doesn't need that sort of assistance.
Overall, more leisurely paced than the first movie, but it grows on you.
The print is very good, so much so that when the occasional bit of speckling (or one really bad instance of a torn frame) occurs, it's shocking. Colors are more vibrant than in the first disc. The Cantonese soundtrack is a muffled and slightly out of sync, it seems (like I'm an expert), but the Mandarin track is quite lively. The English subtitles very occasionally betray a bit of strange grammar, causing me to wonder on which side of the Pacific they were written.
There are (incomplete) filmographies for Tsui Hark and stars Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan, and trailers for this movie, "The Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy" (Part 3 comes out on DVD in mid-July, a box set is available on pre-order), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Jackie Chan's Miracles.
Unlike the first disc, there is no commentary track, and I feel an odd pang of loss there. Ric Meyers' track on part one had it's flaws, but remained informative throughout. Some historic background by another knowledgeable chap would have been nice, but I suspect time constraints did not allow the necessary research and recording time.
Once more, the English-dubbed version is included as an extra, and once again this deviates from the first disc: scenes with characters that spoke only English or Chinese and the difficulties this engendered were simply cut from the first movie. In Part Two, the scenes were re-written so that everybody seems to be speaking English, and westerners are just plain jerks. I'm not certain which way I prefer.
Although I'm not quite as astounded this time as I was the first, Columbia has still produced an outstanding disc, and I wish more distributors were taking this sort of care with foreign film.
Dr Freex, 6/26/2001