The third installment of Tsui Hark and Jet Li's restaging of the legend of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung feels like a return to basics after the expansive storyline of Part 2. The Dowager Empress, concerned by the allegiances being forged between the Western countries and enemies of the empire like Japan, devises the admittedly bizarre plan of impressing the Westerners with the power of Chinese martial arts by holding a lion dance competition. This has the effect of not only stirring bitter rivalries betwixt various kung fu schools to actual battle in the streets, but a villainous oil merchant (and gangster) decides to bribe and intimidate his way to the title and golden prize. Once again, Wong Fei-hung walks into the aftermath of a fight and finds himself cast in the role of Lawman, especially since the beatdown victim is his own father.
Just so we don't miss the strife with the encroaching West that is the hallmark of the series, the foreign-educated Yee (Rosamund Kwan) runs into an old college mate, Tumanovsky, who is now working with the Russian Embassy. Though Fei-hung and Yee have decided to stop dancing around their feelings for each other and get married, Tumanovsky obviously has feelings for Yee, which are not entirely unrequited.
But chances are we're here to watch martial arts, and several of the fights on exhibit are corkers. Two of the major sequences involve lion dances, and the ornate lion heads are fitted with more concealed weapons than James Bond's BMW. Spears, swords, flamethrowers, nothing is beneath that evil capitalist oil merchant! The final competition, with numerous lion dance teams swarming about a bamboo pyramid, fighting for the high ground like berserk caterpillars on speed, is exotic and bizarre enough for even the most jaded cinephile.
The image tends a bit toward softness, but this is a defect that I've noticed even on the original laserdiscs. Past this, the print looks great, with only occasional dust and wear damage. For once, the two Chinese language tracks seem to have been accorded equal weight; neither the Cantonese nor the Mandarin version is livelier than the other. Subtitles are quite serviceable and to the point - rarely, if ever, does the translation cause you to think, "Huh? Wha?"
Once again, the English-dubbed version of the movie is included as an extra for those who cannot (or simply don't like to) "read" their movies. This is at odds with the Columbia disc for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which features the dubbed version as the default selection. Which is the preferred treatment ultimately comes down to personal taste, and it is praiseworthy that the distributor covers all these bases. If I have one complaint, it's that the male voices in the English dub have a tendency to sound alike.
Once again, I curse myself for nit-picking Ric Meyers' commentary track in my review of the first movie - I didn't know when I had it good. Some background information on the tradition of the lion dance, and why it is so important in Chinese history and culture would have been most welcome, even as a text piece. Once again, however, I think we're dealing with a rushed product, as witness the other extras:
The same lineup of trailers as on the Part 2 disc: Once Upon A Time in China 2, The Once Upon A Time in China Box Set, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Jackie Chan's Miracles. And the same incomplete (and in at least one instance, incorrect) filmographies for Tsui Hark, Jet Li, and Rosamund Kwan.
That niggling aside, the treatment of the movie itself is great (goodbye to my VHS copy from laserdisc!). The primary question looms: now what? Columbia will likely be loath to publish the next two in the series: Parts 4 and 5 both lack Jet Li. Would they skip to his return to the role in Part 6? And what of the popular Once Upon A Time In China and America? My bank account has developed a nervous twitch under this onslaught of quality discs, and though it would certainly like a rest, I eagerly hope for more offerings of this sort from Columbia TriStar.
Dr. Freex, 10/8/2001