Fourth instalment in the Once Upon a Time in China film series. It was directed by action choreographer Yuen Bun in his directorial debut and produced by Tsui Hark, who directed the first three films. Vincent Zhao stars as Chinese martial arts master and folk hero Wong Fei-hung, who was portrayed by Jet Li in the first three films.
Replacing Jet Li from the first three successful films in the series, Vincent Wenzhuo Zhao stars as “Wong Fei-Hung”. Zhao, who is often credited as Chiu Man-cheuk in his earlier films, is a former Chinese wushu champion, who is also proficient in Tai Chi. He was talent spotted by producer and director Corey Yuen whilst studying at the Beijing Sports University where Zhao was also a martial arts instructor. As well as being known for his heroic roles in the television serials of “Wong Fei-Hung” and “Huo Yuanjia”, Zhao has starred in several popular big screen hits, including “Fong Sai-Yuk”, “The Blade”, “True Legend“, “God of War”, “The Unity of Heroes” and “Kung Fu League”.
Taiwanese model, Jean Wang Ching-Ying stars as “14th Aunt May”. Wang had previously appeared in the wuxia movie “Swordsman III: East is Red” and starred as “Miss Orchid” in “Iron Monkey”. Wang continued to play “Aunt May” in the 5th and 6th instalments of “Once Upon a Time in China“. Actor and singer Max Mok Siu Chung reprises his role from “Once Upon a Time in China II & III” as “Leung Foon”. Originally recruited by the Shaw Brothers Studio, he will also be familiar to fans from his role in “Pedicab Driver”. In the Philippines, he is known as Bronson Lee.
Hung Yan-Yan, sometimes credited as Xiong Xin Xin, reprises his role from the third movie as “Clubfoot Seven Chiu-Tsat”. Having trained in martial arts from the age of 12, Hung was a multiple Chinese wushu champion before director Lau Kar-Leung employed him as Jet Li’s stunt double in “Martial Arts of Shaolin”. He would go on to double for Li several times, including in the “Once Upon a Time in China” films. He played the leader of the White Lotus Sect, “Kau-kung Priest Gao”, in the second movie, before establishing himself in the “Club Foot” role for the sequels, which he also reprised for 2018’s “Kung Fu League”.
He quickly gained an admirable reputation as a martial arts action performer, stuntman and choreographer in his own right. He was the main villain “Prince Twelve” in Yuen Woo Ping‘s “Hero Among Heroes / Fist of the Red Dragon” starring Donnie Yen. Hung followed Tsui Hark to Hollywood in 1998, making a brief performance in “Double Team”. He later returned to Hollywood as stunt choreographer for “The Musketeer”.
A familiar screen-villain, Billy Chow Bei-Lei stars as “Iron Fist”. A real-life kickboxing champion, he is best known for his hard-kicking fights in films such as “Fist of Legend”, “Dragons Forever”, “Eastern Condors”, “Blonde Fury”, “Pedicab Driver”, “Miracles”, “Tai Chi Boxer”, and many more. Prolific stuntman Chin Kar-Lok appears as “Duen Tin-lui”. The younger brother of “Mr Vampire” star Chin Siu-Ho, Kar-Lok has made notable appearances in the movies “Moon Warriors”, “The Avenging Fist”, “The Scorpion King”, “Heart of the Dragon”, “Drunken Master II”, and has performed stunts in many dozens of Hong Kong action classics.
A familiar character actor in Tsui Hark productions, Lau Shun reprises his role as “Wong Kei-Ying”, Fei-Hung’s father. A former opera performer, he was technical advisor for the acclaimed film “Peking Opera Blues”, and has acted in over fifty films including “Dragon From Russia”, “License to Steal”, “Blade of Fury”, “Tai Chi Master”, “Tai Chi Boxer” and “The Grandmaster”.
Following the events of the preceding film, in Beijing, China in 1900, Wong Fei-Hung is being lauded as the King of the Lion Dance. Fei-Hung plans to return to Foshan with his father Wong Kei-Ying and apprentices Leung Foon and Clubfoot. Fei-Hung is also tasked with taking care of 13th Aunt’s sister, 14th Aunt May, who has a crush on him.
Deputy Governor Guan Shingtao visits Wong Fei-Hung and tells him that the Eight-Nation Alliance has challenged China to an international lion dance competition. Wong agrees to represent his nation. China must win to uphold its sovereignty and regain lost national pride.
Meanwhile, The Red Lantern Sect is a feminist and xenophobic cult, that goes around killing foreigners and destroying everything regarded as alien to Chinese culture. Its members are all female and armed with rope weapons, swords, flaming arrows and ether-filled lanterns.
When the cult attacks a German medical clinic, Wong intervenes and tries to stop them from killing the foreigners. German soldiers show up and arrest Wong and Miao Sanniang, one of the cult members. The Red Lantern Sect’s leader thinks that Wong has kidnapped Miao so she sends her followers to attack and capture Wong’s companions.
With tensions rising on all sides, can Wong save his friends from the Lantern cult, defeat the corrupt German soldiers, and restore his nation’s pride at the lion dance tournament?
Vincent Zhao has the Kung Fu Skills to Fill Jet Li’s Shoes
Vincent Zhao lays down a marker from the first frame that he has the skills to fill the big shoes left by Jet Li. Much like the famous opening credits scene with Jet Li’s Wong Fei-Hung leading dozens of students in unison on a beach, Zhao’s version has him whirlwind-kicking to splits conducting a similar number of students in front of what looks like the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Although it is energetic and entertaining to watch, it sadly lacks the rousing “Under the General’s Orders” theme song of the earlier films, although a new version plays over a recap of the events of “Once Upon a Time in China 3”.
Zhao Demonstrates Lion Dance Excellence
The first bit of action is a Lion versus a Dragon dance. Even though there is some flying around on wires, on terra firma Vincent Zhao looks like he is genuinely skilled in the art of the lion dance. Dare I say it, more so than Jet Li.
When the Red Lantern Sect arrive, they appear to be a rather jolly troupe of acrobats who parade through the streets to the delight of the watching crowds. However, it is cover for their attack on a German dispensary. Fearing for the safety of any innocent bystanders, Fei-Hung leaps into action, fighting off the sword-wielding femme fatales with a horsewhip.
Zhao Proficient with Horsewhip & Swift Kicking Combos
Vincent Zhao is comfortable with the weapon, twirling it around his body then suddenly striking out, much like a wushu whip-chain or rope-dart. An exciting escape from a German prison brings with it lots of swift kicking combinations from Zhao, and some of the more fantastical stuff too, all performed in a haze of power-powder.
Hung Yan Yan, Max Mok Siu Chung and even the elderly Lau Shun get a brief moment to show they are no slouches in the action department, as they defend themselves against the Red Lantern cultists. When Fei-Hung comes to their rescue there is a very unique fight that takes place on a set of giant dominos!
It leads into a sequence that looks more akin to a fantasy film such as “The Bride with White Hair” or “Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain”. There is lots of flying about, as the cult’s “Holy Lotus Mother” displays her apparent supernatural powers. In a self-referential pay off though, Fei-Hung declares, “It’s all just wires”!
Surreal, Colourful Lion Dance Set Piece
The Lion Dance tournament is a surreal, colourful set-piece, with giant centipedes, eagles, dragons, and I think an octopus, running around attacking each other. The nefarious European teams use sneaky tricks like having flame-throwers or machine guns hidden in among their players.
Best Wong Fei Hung Fight with Trademark Umbrella
A fight with the Red Lantern Sect sees Hung Yan-Yan given a chance to demonstrate his considerable acrobatic and kicking skills. The action featured in this sequence is surprisingly violent and bloody in comparison with the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, Vincent Zhao impresses using an umbrella as a weapon, something of a trademark in Wong Fei-Hung movies, this being one of the best fights in the film.
Fight Finale: Zhao vs Billy Chow & Chin Kar-Lok Impresses
The extended finale once again features the impressive large dancing animals in a riot of martial arts, slapstick comedy and wirework. It culminates in a duel between Vincent Zhao, Billy Chow and Chin Kar-Lok. Despite Chow and Kar-Lok being set up earlier as deadly foes, they are woefully underused in the final fight, and seem to pose little threat to our hero. Even so, there are still a few nifty moves to enjoy.
Vincent Zhao was just 21 years-old when tasked with replacing superstar Jet Li in his defining role. No pressure then! To be fair to Zhao, he does an admirable job. Physically he is very capable, and there is less obvious doubling of Zhao than there was of the Li, who is nine years older and was plagued with niggling injuries during his tenure.
Although perhaps less charismatic than Li, Zhao brings a youthful energy whilst retaining the noble air of authority required for the character, without ever trying to do a Jet Li impersonation.
Despite that, Zhao does seem to punctuate the end of just about every movement with the trademark upright stance with one hand behind his back, or the classic outstretched palms stand off pose. I don’t know if that was something he consciously did, or if director Yuen Bun insisted on it as if to say, “Look! It’s just like the other Wong Fei-Hung!”.
Making his directorial debut, Yuen Bun films everything from a low angle, often silhouetting the action against the sun. Most of the time it looks very stylish and a lot of great action is caught in slow motion, not unlike Tsui Hark’s originals. The production value in the sets and costumes from the previous films is retained, and the theme of Chinese pride and nationalism is once again explored, although in more simplistic terms than before.
This film isn’t a complete failure, but it does have several flaws that prevent it from being as successful as the other movies in the series.
A lot of the plot is a rehash of the first three films; dastardly foreigners from the first one (apart from a kindly priest), a xenophobic cult from the second one, and lion dance competitions to settle political issues from the third one.
Jean Wang is reasonably charming as Aunt May but isn’t a patch on Rosamund Kwan, and certainly doesn’t share the same chemistry with Vincent Zhao that Kwan and Jet Li had.
So that leaves the action. It is well performed and filmed and there is lots to enjoy on those terms. There is also A LOT of wirework. Wires were prevalent in the previous films, but for this movie much of the fighting is akin to a Chinese supernatural fantasy film.
This is worth watching to see Vincent Zhao bring a fresh take to the role of Wong Fei-Hung and enjoy some entertaining and unique set-pieces. Ultimately though, this is a weak entry in the popular series of films.
- “Even though we know this is a trap, we should participate anyway.” – Wong Fei-Hung
- “I don’t think war between us can be avoided any longer!” – Guan Shingtao
- “Master, what sort of kung fu is that? She can fly!” – Leung Foon
- “Ah! It’s just wires!” – Wong Fei-Hung
- “It is useless to rely on our kung fu against them. We should destroy them by tactics.” – Wong Fei-Hung
- “Ladies, castrate them!” – Lotus Holy Mother
- The absence of Jet Li and the reduced input of Tsui Hark heavily affected the film’s box office earnings. However, these factors also allowed the film to be produced at a much lower budget. Despite many negative reviews, the film grossed HK$11,301,790, a return significant enough for the producers to go ahead with the next film in the franchise, “Once Upon a Time in China V”.
- Billy Chow’s character is introduced as “Iron Fist” by punching and killing a horse. A famous real-life Chinese martial artist, Gu Ruzhang (1894–1952), known for his expertise in Iron Palm became a legendary heroic figure in some Chinese martial arts communities through a similar skill.
- As the story goes, a Russian circus strongman had a wild Siberian horse that was trained to fight, and the man was challenging all comers to accept the match between anyone who could “tame”, or beat the horse. There was a reward, but that was not Master Gu’s motivation.
- The reason he accepted the challenge was because other masters and their students were being beat up by the horse quite badly, acquiring some serious injuries. Gu wanted to end the shame of his colleagues, so he accepted the challenge himself.
- When Gu got into the ring with the horse, he got kicked several times, but he received no injuries at all, due to his internal iron-body skill. Gu then managed to slap the horse with one palm slap. The horse gave out a loud whinny and dropped dead with blood coming out of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and died instantly.
- An autopsy was performed and they found out that the horse had died of massive internal bleeding, due to ruptured blood vessels and organs, yet there was no sign or external mark of any injury on the outside of the horse’s body.