Once Upon a Time in China IV | Varied Celluloid

Once Upon a Time in China IV

Posted by On December - 2 - 2011

Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993)
Director: Bun Yuen
Writers: Tsui Hark and Elsa Tang
Starring: Vincent Zhao, Mok Siu Chung, Xin Xin Xiong, Billy Chow and Jean Wang

The Plot: The film seems to take place shortly after the events of Once Upon a Time in China III, with Wong Fei-hung (this time played by Vincent Zhao) and his surrogate family all in a state of peace. This peace will not last for long, however, as the evil foreign invaders are once again trying to take advantage of the Chinese citizenry. The German government has taken a particular interest in China, and they are leading the Eight-Nation Alliance in order to quell the Boxer’s Rebellion in early 20th century China. Wong Fei-hung is approached by a Chinese general in order to represent their nation in a lion dance competition that is being held by the Eight-Nation Alliance. Wong does not look to interfere, however, and instead takes a neutral role. Although he wants to keep the peace, he is soon thrust right in the midst of the battle due to a misunderstanding that occurs when he attempts to rescue a group of Westerners from the radical feminist martial arts organization known as The Red Lantern Society. When Wong Fei-hung discovers how the Chinese people are being treated by this alliance, he realizes that it is up to him to defend the people of China once again!

The Review
I have been trying to psych myself up in order to finish out the Once Upon a Time in China series for over a decade at this point. During the late nineties, I discovered Jet Li and the intensity of the original Once Upon a Time in China series, and I never looked back. When I discovered that there were entries into this series, other than the original three, my excitement could barely be contained. Then, I heard the bad news. Jet Li had not returned to the role of Wong Fei Hung for the fourth and fifth movie. Replacing Jet Li with the considerably unknown Vincent Zhao seemed disrespectful to me as a Jet Li fan, and it proved to be enough to completely turn me off from the other two entries in this series for well over ten years. However, I stand today as a more mature viewer, and I say that this movie really isn’t so bad. Not nearly as bad as my teenage immaturity had at one point convinced me that it would be. The loss of key actors within the series is a definite downside for the project, but the movie actually manages to play out as a fair continuation of the legendary series. It may not reach the epic aspirations of the previous movies within the series, but it does its very best.

When I first popped the movie in, it became very clear that I was watching a film that had a great deal of artistic legitimacy behind it. The movie is shot in a very similar fashion as many of the other larger-budgeted period pieces that came from the 90s. The Once Upon a Time… series was very famous for this “look,” which put the spotlight on the use of low and adjacent camera angles. There was something special about the way Hong kong filmmakers used their cameras in the nineties. Filmmakers such as Tsui Hark, John Woo and even Ringo Lam all used these techniques in a way that became identified as quintessentially “Hong Kong.” The camera angles were placed as close to the ground as possible, and they were then seemingly tilted slightly upwards in order to make the cast seem larger-than-life. Along with these odd angles, Hong Kong filmmakers during the nineties seemed to refuse keeping their cameras in a static position. At all times times, the camera was ready to move, and more often than not, they briskly ran into a closeup of whatever cast member was having the emphasis thrown on them. Once Upon a Time in China IV carries with it this very obvious stylistic appearance, and because of this “look” it doesn’t have to try immensely hard in order to define itself as an “epic.” It certainly already has the appearance.

The movie tries its best to capture the magic of the original trilogy in all other regards as well, but it only finds varying success. Although the movie certainly has the right “look,” it does not have the performances to match up with the original cast. Vincent Zhao, who takes over for Jet Li, does manage to far exceed my expectations within the role. I think that he offers a very moral and focused version of the character, but he unfortunately loses the comedic timing that Jet Li had brought to the role. Although the original Once Upon a Time… trilogy are best known for being big budget Hong Kong epics, they were also movies that focused a great deal on their humor. Jet Li often played the straight man as Wong Fei-Hung, but the silly antics that he found himself wrapped up in gave the series most of its heart. Vincent Zhao is not completely without heart in his performance, but there isn’t much in the movie for him to do other than step in when someone needs rescuing. This leaves a great deal of the comedy left to Mok Siu Chung (who returns as Leung Fu) and Xin Xin Xiong (returning as Club Foot), who are both very solid even if they do not progress very much as characters. Jean Wang, who replaces Rosamund Kwan, as Aunt May doesn’t do nearly as well, I am afraid. She lacks the tenacity of Kwan’s character and comes off as a rather generic supporting character, when she should really be much more than that.

The patriotism that dominated the earlier films is certainly very visible this time around as well. The Red Lantern women look to expel the foreign invaders, and once again Wong is pushed into the center of a patriotic battle to defend the good name of China. Audiences can probably look back at this series as the genesis for the overt patriotism that now dominates the Hong Kong market place. Within the context of the Once Upon a Time… series, this nationalism never became so fervent that it annoyed audiences. One has to imagine that part of the success that the series had was due to this very different portrayal of Chinese heroics. I can think of few films before this series that demonstrated this sort of “us against them” mentality with such brazen demonstrations. Throughout the entire series, Wong Fei-Hung consistently battles against foreign invaders. Once Upon a Time in China IV does not differentiate itself in this regard.

I do have to admit that it seems odd to see German invaders using lion dance celebrations as a means of emasculating the Chinese people, but somehow this movie makes it work… at least partially. Sequences such as the three lion dance competitions (which feel old hat at this point in the series due to their inclusion in the third movie) do little more than give ample opportunity for the filmmakers to show off their abilities at choreographing epic battles. Even those such sequences add little to the overall drama, they do show off the technical prowess of the filmmakers. Vincent Zhao steps up as a athletic leading man and thoroughly demonstrates that he has the ability to replace someone like Jet Li in a role like this one. The choreography is top notch for the most part, with my only problems coming from the fact that certain fight sequence simply were not as long as they should have been. The battle that Wong Fei-Hung has with the Red Lantern women, which takes place on top of a series of standing dominoes, is the perfect example of a fight sequence that really could have used three or four more minutes worth of screen time.

The Conclusion
If there is a serious problem with Once Upon a Time in China IV, it comes from the fact that the movie is bland in most regards. Sure, the fight sequences are solid. Sure, Vincent Zhao isn’t as bad as I thought he might be. Sure, it looks good. However, where is the story? What does the movie say that hasn’t already been said? Not a whole lot. Without intense fight sequences that stand out heads above the rest of the marketplace, a martial art film like this really doesn’t portray itself as anything spectacular or “must see.” I give the film a solid three out of four, because it is harmless for the most part and provides general entertainment.




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