ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 4 (1993) short review

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In 1993, Wu Shu champion Vincent Zhao had the uneasy task of replacing Jet Li as the iconic Wong Fei Hung in a fourth installment of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, following a highly successful trilogy of films. Once Upon A Time In China IV (henceforth Ouatic IV) is not actually directed by Tsui Hark, but by Yuen Bun, who had choreographed the action in the third film. The film is on a smaller scale, and its story, while still musing on themes of national pride and foreign influence, is both more anecdotal and a rehash of the second film’s plot (with the ‘Red Lantern’ sect replacing the ‘White Lotus’ sect). Zhao is an adequate replacement : he’s not as charismatic as Jet Li, but his martial arts ability and grace doesn’t suffer by comparison. The problem is that the film features drawn-out scenes of lion-dancing, a venerable tradition that must be stunning in real life, but tends to bore this writer on screen, and despite the stunning design of some of those parade ornaments, is a weak substitute for actual fight scenes, which are too scarce here. Elsewhere, Jean Wang provides a fine replacement for Rosamund Kwan’s absent Aunt Yee, and Xiong Xin Xin is close to stealing the film away from Zhao with his humorous performance (complemented of course by his awe-inspiring kicks). But like the former film, Ouatic IV lacks a proper villain, with Chin Kar-Lok and Billy Chow forming a striking but grossly underused duo of baddies. An entertaining but forgettable installment. **1/2

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 5 (1994) review

  Jet Li’s departure from the Once Upon A Time In China series that had made him a superstar didn’t stop producer/director Tsui Hark from proceeding with the franchise, thus recasting the central character of Wong Fei-Hung with another Mainland Wushu champion, Vincent Zhao. This led to a fourth episode, directed by a Yuen Bun, that ended up being far less successful than any of the Jet Li installments. It did have fixtures of the franchise like Max Mok’s Leung Fu or Xiong Xin Xin’s Clubfoot, but the absence not only of Jet Li, but also of Rosamund Kwan’s Aunt Yee, another major character in the franchise, coupled with uninspired direction, made it look like a bargain bin iteration of the Chinese hero’s adventures. And so for the fifth episode, Tsui Hark returned to the director’s chair, signed his protege for the lead role again, managed for Rosamund Kwan to return, but more importantly tweaked the formula of the series a little bit by making it more akin to a serial, mostly by including pirates and a treasure into the mix.

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