Once Upon a Time in China V (1994)
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Tsui Hark, Lam Kee-to and Lau Daai-muk
Starring: Victor Zhao, Xin Xin Long, Rosamun Kwan

The Plot: Our film begins on a port-side village, where a group of pirates have taken to terrorizing a local business. They send a bucket of fingers, which they have stolen from wandering land dwellers, to this port and demand to have rice shipped to them in return. On the same rainy night that these fingers are discovered, Leung Foon (Max Mok) walks up to the door and asks for help in repairing the wagon that holds his master Wong Fei-hung (Vincent Zhao), along with the rest of the regulars from the OUATIC series. This group attacks Leung Foon at first, but after a quick Wong Fei-hung applied beatdown – these two groups come to a understanding. After Wong Fei-hung helps catch a thief, he and the crew travel into town in order to see if the courts are as treacherous as the dock people have made it out to be. As it turns out, the thief that was caught is nothing more than a police officer, and due to the magistrate recently being run off, all finances have been cut off from the local authorities and they are stuck without any form of money. So, Wong Fei-hung takes it upon himself to discover who these reckless pirates are, and set things right within this community.

The Review
The Once Upon a Time in China series holds a very respected place within the annals of Hong Kong film history. In the same way that John Woo’s work helped to completely evolve the industry, the Once Upon a Time in China changed the wuxia and martial arts film forever. From the low angle lens, which dominated the nineties Hong Kong film market, to the excessive use of wire work, these films defined a era. Making a superstar out of Jet Li, as well as the supporting cast, the tail end of the series has always remained a bit elusive to North American viewers. Once Upon a Time in China IV and V have never had the dramatic introduction to the North American marketplace that Jet Li’s original trilogy had, and this seems to go back to the fact that Jet Li left the role of Wong Fei-hung to the lesser known Vincent Zhao. As I discussed in our review for Once Upon a Time in China IV, Zhao isn’t nearly as bad in the role as I somehow suspected he might be. Filling Jet Li’s shoes in one of his most defining roles would be hard for any person, but he did a admirable job. Now, in the fifth sequel, it seems as if Tsui Hark heard similar feedback to what my initial review for the fourth film said, because he makes several adjustments to the formula and certainly produces what I would consider a better film. However, better does not equal “great,” and in the end this final chapter in the Vincent Zhao speriod of the Once Upon a Time… series comes out as fair but flawed.

The way that this sequel starts off, you would think that Tsui Hark had decided to take the series into slightly heavier waters. Beginning with a more violent tone than the fourth film ever dared to produce, this fifth film shows immediate promise in terms of developing something slightly original within the series. It was as if OUATIC IV wanted to be seen as a true part in this legendary series so bad that it would do nearly anything to prove its worth, and this was part of what drew me away from the picture. Instead of acknowledging the changes that had been made, while also acknowledging the history of the series, and simply doing something original, the movie felt as if it were a complete retread of what we had already seen so far in the series. However, with this initial dose of the unusual in OUATIC V, the audience gathers hope that this might be a title that really creates its own unique voice within this universe. In a scene that showcases the nasty pirates that our protagonists will inevitably have to battle, the movie hits its audience with some immediate shock value right at the front end of the film. Within the first few minutes were are shown a man having his arms cut off, as well as having a bullet put through his head, all in a ferociously paced manner. This sets a fairly dramatic tone for what the rest of the movie might deliver. Even the famous Wong Fei-hung theme song appears to have been changed up a bit, giving even more suggestion that this might be a new approach to the series. However, old habits die hard, and what we get is a slightly changed addition to the series that still somehow clings to the past.

If there are adjustments within the series, it comes in the form of its storytelling. Previous films have clung to the concept of patriotism and fighting back imperialist powers, which was all well and good for the first couple of films but had admittedly grown tiresome throughout each successive film. Still, Wong Fei-hung has always been seen as a general do-good kind of character who, through circumstance, always has ill will thrown in his direction. This time out, though, it seems as if Wong Fei-hung is the one searching for adventure. Taking a cue from Hollywood, OUATIC V is a grandiose martial arts adventure film, if ever there was one. Including the requisite supernatural elements, as well as pirates and hidden treasure, this is certainly the most entertainment focused the series has ever been. Although this leads to a much sillier film, I think that this was one of the strongest areas for the entire movie. There are very few dull moments within this movie. However, if there are any, it probably comes during the purely comedic scenes. The film, during the first hour in particular, often develops into a farce of sorts. In particular, it does so as we watch Wong Fei-hung enter into a love triangle between himself, 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and 14th Aunt (Jean Wang). Some of this becomes a bit too exaggerated, but it sometimes manages to play the “cutesy” card in just the right angle that it inevitably does everything that it sets out to do. It is as if the filmmakers got the memo about what was lacking from the previous film, and decided to show that Vincent Zhao actually was able to deliver upon the comedic requirements of the role. The plot developments within OUATIC 5 are not entirely new devices, but for what it is worth the humor works. It does become almost too adorable at times, but inevitably the movie finds the correct balance between cutesy and comedy that works.

Vincent Zhao finally finds himself relaxing in the role of Wong Fei-hung. Although he was solid in OUATIC IV, he finally finds himself stretching out and delivering on more than just a heroic attitude. This time out Zhao gets to show his comedic timing, and he actually does a good job. During the love triangle, he is one of the better attributes within these scenes. Zhao manages to create chemistry amongst the cast and I genuinely liked what he did here. The rest of the cast are all stellar in their performances, as well. Kent Cheng returns as “The Magnificent Butcher” Lam Sai-wing, and even Rosamund Kwan makes her due return to the series as well. Kwan, who was very missed in the previous film, gives a delightful amount of “cute” to the picture. She, by herself, may raise the film up a half-point on the rating scale!

The Conclusion
Although Once Upon a Time in China V may very well correct some of the negative attributes that were found in the previous film, it still creates its own holes along the way. Following a plot that often feels episodic, not to mention completely torn away from the Once Upon a Time… universe, the movie simply doesn’t have that instantaneous “grab” that the majority of these movies did. I still give it a respectable three out of five.