Third time's a charm. Sort of. Jet Li is back as the legendary physician-cum-martial arts master, Wong Fey-Hong, along with his trusty comic relief-inducing sidekick (Mok) and fiancée Yee (Kwan). This time out, the trio travel to Beijing to pay a visit to Hong's father, a benevolent manufacturer of those nifty lion heads used in various martial arts ceremonies and dances. Arriving in town at the height of the Lion Dance Competition, Hong must defend his father's lion head school from a rival gang while simultaneously subverting the flirtations of one of Yee's former suitors, a duplicitous Russian fellow with grotesquely fake sideburns, and saving the emperor from an assassination attempt. It's a full menu, as is always the case with Hark's historical pieces, but this time out, the story is much easier to follow -- thanks to a more cohesive plotline, and fewer extraneous battle scenes. Nothing here rivals the ladder-fight scene of Once Upon a Time
I, but the film's convoluted climax comes close (whew!), with several martial arts schools battling atop a precarious bamboo structure that threatens to topple at any moment. Hark once again uses the presence of foreign dignitaries to symbolize turn-of-the-century China's ambivalence regarding its own future as a world power, and once again these foreign devils are portrayed by talent-impaired actors with beady eyes and twitchy limbs. Caucasian actors are hardly a commodity in Hong Kong these days, I'd guess. If you've caught any of Hark's other engaging period films before, you know what to expect. If not, this might be a good enough introduction, but hardly the best of the lot.