Once Upon A Time in China IV (Wong Fei Hung IV: Wong je ji fung)

Hong Kong/China (1993) Dir. Yuen Bun

It’s one thing to change the actor for a lead role to do it the middle of a film series is a hell of a risk, especially when the previous star was a marquee name and in making the franchise a hit, is a tough act to follow. That is what happened with the fourth instalment of the Once Upon A Time In China franchise. Showbiz, eh?

Fresh off his victory at the national Lion Dance competition, Wong Fei-Hung (Vincent Zhao) is to leave Beijing and return to Foshan with his father Kei-ying (Lau Shun) and his apprentices Leung Foon (Max Mok) and Clubfoot (Hung Yan-yan). Before he can, General Chengdu (Chen Jiming) arrives with a request for Fei-hung to represent China in Lion Dance challenge by the Eight Nation Alliance, which he accepts.

Meanwhile, a feminist nationalist group the Red Lanterns, attacks a German hospital as Fei-hung is in town. He steps up to defend the Germans but is believed to be part of the attack and is captured by German soldiers, along with Lantern member Miao Sanniang (Wang Jinghua). Unaware of this, Red Lantern head The Holy Mother thinks Fei-hung has kidnapped Miao and seeks revenge.  

Thanks to the alchemy created by the duo of Tsui Hark and Jet Li, the first three films in the Once Upon A Time In China series were big hits, propelling Li into superstar territory and cementing Hark’s reputation as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, a contract dispute after making Part III ended the relationship until they reunited for Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate in 2011.

Whether this led to Hark’s limited role here to co-writer and handing over the director’s seat to Yuen Bun I can’t say; unsurprisingly, the film was not a hit. Replacing Jet Li wasn’t going to be easy but Wushu champion Vincent Zhao was up to the task, though there is a noticeable wire work heavy approach to the choreography; as far as being a compelling character, Zhao is unable to replicate Li’s charisma.

Since Wong Fei-hung was a national Chinese hero, it is unfortunate his role in this film is to be an ass-kicking machine, whilst the drama and comic relief is carried by the rest of the cast. Jumping ship with Li was Rosamund Kwan, meaning no Aunt Yee for this Fei-hung, replaced instead by Yee’s sister May (Jean Wang), deciding to betray her sister by flirting with her brother-in-law.

Like with Fei-hung, May has a limited role at the forefront of the story, offset by the whirling dervishes that are the Red Lanterns – petite and deadly zealots intent on ridding China of “foreign evil”. If this sounds familiar, this is because it was the plot of Part II, with the Lanterns replacing the White Lotus clan, whilst the Lion Dance contest was the main theme of Part III, which was made just months before this film.

Relying on genuine political events of the era – i.e. turn of the 20th century – to facilitate the nationalistic subtext, there is the confusion of the Germans having two turncoats on their side, Iron Fist (Billy Chow) and Duen Tin-lui (Chin Ka Lok). Not that there weren’t defectors, but in the context of this story, it means we don’t have a clear antagonist for Fei-hung – is it the Foreigners or the xenophobic but patriotic Lanterns?

Consequently, the story is patchy and scrappy in it execution, jumping between the two plots with no rhyme or reason. The first act deals with the challenge by the Eight Nations then switches to the Red Lanterns arc. After escaping jail with the help of Catholic priest Father Thomas (Louis Roth), Fei-hung heads to the Lantern’s liar where his friends and family have been captured. To gain an audience with the Holy Mother, he has to fight his way through three obstacles.

Having earned his friends freedom, it’s off to the Lion Dance contest for Fei-hung and co. but they arrive late having been held up with lanterns. There are two scenes involving the massive creature costumes – the actual handling of these creations can’t have been easy, same for the choreography, and whilst we have to make allowances for dramatic licence, it is like watching a balletic Kaiju battle!

Kung Fu cinema has long ignored fundamental details like gravity and laws of physics, with Tsui Hark as one of the worst offenders, but Yuen Bun decides to tale this ignorance to the next level. Granted, it is impressively executed and the cast give it their all in being slung about on wires, yet it would be nice of their feet actually touched the ground every once in a while! Okay, it’s not that bad but does feel like Zhao spends most of his fight scenes in the air.

Another thing working against this film was the reduced budget, evident in so many areas, yet Bun does his best to conceal this as much as possible and certainly, the Lion Dance scenes couldn’t have been that cheap. What this tells us is name power means more to a film than we imagine; had Hark and Li still been onboard, this would no doubt have been another spectacular entry in the series.

Vincent Zhao would assume the role of Fei-hung once more for the big screen and on TV – under Hark’s direction this time – and has since proven himself a reliable and capable action star in period martial arts dramas. Ironically, Zhao’s debut was in Fong Sai-Yuk a few months prior to this film, playing the main villain against Jet Li, which is where Hark first met him.

Once Upon A Time in China IV has all the hallmarks of being one sequel too many, and might have worked better as a separate project away from the Wong Fei-hung legacy, but for sheer hard-hitting, inventive if slightly goofy kung-fu fun, this is a perfectly cromulent way to get your fix in a swift 96-minute dose.