April 16, 1992, was a significant release date for not one but two of the most quintessential Hong Kong movies ever made. Those movies in question include Hard Boiled <辣手神探> and Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強>.
The latter is an immediate sequel to the 1991’s genre-defining Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻>, which was only released 8 months apart. But Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強> is hardly a cash grab-type of a sequel merely taking advantage of the first movie’s enormous popularity. Instead, returning director Tsui Hark improves the sequel in many ways with a more coherent storyline that combines an engaging mix of martial arts, comedy and historical drama.
The story — credited to Tsui Hark, Hanson Chan Tin-Suen (Swordsman 2 <笑傲江湖II東方不敗>) and Charcoal Tan (Dragon Inn <新龍門客棧>) — follows Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) along with Aunt 13th (Rosamund Kwan) and his apprentice, Leung Foon (Max Mok, replacing Yuen Biao from the first movie), as they travel to Canton to attend a medical convention. From there, he crosses paths with the members of the xenophobic White Lotus Sect, who tries to capture Aunt 13th when she tried to take a photograph of them. He also met Dr Sun Yat-Sen (Zhang Tielin) during the convention when he helps Wong Fei-Hung to translate his lecture on Chinese acupuncture for foreign doctors.
Sun turns out to be the leader of a rebellion as well, where he and his friend, Lu Hao-Dong (David Chiang) both determine to overthrow the Qing government in an effort to form a republic in China. This doesn’t sit well with the government, which later assigns Commander Lan (Donnie Yen) to track down the rebels at all costs and particularly obtains the book that contains the name list of the revolutionaries. Wong, caught in the middle of the conflicts between the Qing government and the White Lotus Cult led by Priest Gao Kung (Xiong Xin-Xin), gradually helps the rebels.
Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強> benefits from a brisk pace that runs nearly two hours long. Hark’s sociopolitical overtones, in the meantime, remain present in this sequel. But he successfully incorporated them without being overly preachy or heavy-handed as seen in the first movie. The sequel also gets an extra boost from Yuen Woo-Ping’s award-winning martial arts choreography. Easily one of the best ever seen in the history of Hong Kong cinema, the combination of wirework and acrobatic stunts are all thrillingly staged with enough verve and sheer creativity. And it shows right from the earlier part of the movie, where Wong squares off against the members of the White Lotus Sect on the street.
It just gets better from there including Wong’s first encounter with Commander Lan in an impressive bamboo pole fight. The movie is also notable for the elaborate fight sequence between Wong and the members of the White Lotus Sect and subsequently, a spectacular duel against its leader. Then, there’s the unforgettable final fight between Wong and Commander Lan that seals the deal. And at one point, the latter even famously uses a long white cloth as a makeshift weapon.
The cast is equally top-notch, with credit going to Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan reprising their respective roles as Wong Fei-Hung and Aunt 13th. Donnie Yen nearly steals the show as Commander Lan, where he earned a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards, even though he lost to Liu Kai-Chi for Cageman <籠民>.
Yen also proved to be a formidable opponent against Jet Li, where Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-Ping made great use of Yen’s agility and diverse martial arts skills (among them are wushu). While it’s kind of a pity that Yuen Biao didn’t return for the sequel, Max Mok proves to be a worthy replacement in his comic-relief role as Leung Foon.
Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強> was a big hit at the time of its release and even made more money than the first movie at HK$30.3 million. It remains the highest-grossing movie in the franchise, with 1997’s Once Upon A Time In China And America <黃飛鴻之西域雄獅> coming close at HK$30.2 million. Interestingly enough, the sequel actually ranked No 12 at the 1992 Hong Kong box office, trailing behind Fight Back To School II <逃學威龍2> (HK$31.6 million) and Police Story III: Super Cop <警察故事III超級警察> (HK$32.6 million). The sequel went on to score 9 Hong Kong Film Awards nominations including Best Film (lost to Cageman <籠民>) and Best Director (lost to Jacob Cheung for Cageman <籠民>). It only manages to bring home the Best Action Direction, beating the likes of Police Story III: Super Cop <警察故事III超級警察> and Swordsman 2 <笑傲江湖II東方不敗>.