By the time the fourth Once Upon a Time in China <黃飛鴻> film arrived in cinemas back on June 10, 1993, the franchise has begin to show signs of wear and tear. Even the third film, which was screened nearly four months earlier, was largely seen as a weaker entry in the Jet Li-led trilogy.
Speaking of Jet Li, the martial arts superstar was nowhere to be seen in Once Upon a Time in China IV <黃飛鴻之四王者之風>. He reportedly had a dispute with the Golden Harvest studio, which led him to depart the franchise to form Eastern Production Ltd. with Corey Yuen. Their first project was Fong Sai Yuk <方世玉> and Jet Li chose to film the movie in Beijing after the assassination of his producer, Choi Chi-Ming. The latter was gunned down on April 16, 1992, which shook the Hong Kong film industry at the time.
The absence of Jet Li is sorely felt in Once Upon a Time in China IV <黃飛鴻之四王者之風> and his replacement, who turns out to be Fong Sai Yuk <方世玉> co-star Vincent Zhao, does a decent job as the new Wong Fei-Hung. He may have lacked the charisma and physical gracefulness of Jet Li but he’s no slouch either. Hailing from the Wushu School of Beijing Sport University, Zhao proves to be an impressive athlete with an ideal build to play Wong Fei-Hung.
Tsui Hark and Elsa Tang Bik-Yan’s screenplay, however, falters the most that basically rehashes the last two Once Upon a Time in China <黃飛鴻> including the introduction of a sect and lots of lion dance competitions. This time, Wong Fei-Hung along with his apprentices (Max Mok and Xiong Xinxin) find themselves dealing with the Red Lantern Sect (the second movie, in the meantime, involved the White Lotus Sect) and joins General A’Lan Chengdu (Chen Jiming) for the international lion dance competition against the Eight-Nation Alliance.
From there, it’s all business as usual for Wong Fei-Hung and co. as they fight for national pride while attempting to overcome the foreign power that invaded China. It’s a pity the fourth instalment is devoid of the strong sociopolitical subtext seen in the first two Once Upon a Time in China <黃飛鴻> and it’s now replaced by superficial and haphazard storytelling.
This leaves the action sequences, where Yuen Bun is again in charge of the martial arts direction following Once Upon a Time in China III <黃飛鴻之三獅王爭霸>. The fight scenes are energetic while making good use of Zhao’s prowess but surprisingly, none of them are memorable enough to leave a lasting impression. Not even the potentially engaging duel against Billy Chow and Chin Ka-Lok, who both played the antagonists, ends up rather mediocre.
Yuen Bun also did double duties as the director of the fourth instalment after Tsui Hark chose to step down, even though he remained both co-producer and writer. Once Upon a Time in China IV <黃飛鴻之四王者之風> even marked Yuen Bun’s directorial debut and while he’s obviously more comfortable handling the action scenes, his attempt to retain Tsui Hark’s blend of action, comedy and drama is disappointingly erratic and at times, tedious. The latter is particularly evident with the long-winded international lion dance competition that feels more like a filler.
As for the rest of the cast, Max Mok and Xiong Xinxin deliver adequate performances reprising their roles as Leung Foon and Kwai Geuk-Chat a.k.a. Clubfoot Seven. Rosamund Kwan, who plays the 13th Aunt, was absent this time around and Jean Wang replaces her as the 14th Aunt. The introduction of Jean Wang’s 14th Aunt sees the story tries to incorporate the love triangle between her, Wong Fei-Hung and Wang Jinghua’s Miao Sanniang, who plays one of the Red Lantern Sect members. But that angle is largely dismissed as a perfunctory addition that does little to help the already-middling plot.
Once Upon a Time in China IV <黃飛鴻之四王者之風> made HK$11.3 million during its theatrical run — a far cry from the first three movies’ box-office earnings. Vincent Zhao would reprise his role again in the fifth film the following year while Yuen Bun’s venture as a director was only limited to two more movies, Tough Beauty and the Sloppy Slop <怒海威龍> and Fearful 24 Hours <古宅魅影>.