Jet Li’s departure from the Once Upon A Time In China series that had made him a superstar didn’t stop producer/director Tsui Hark from proceeding with the franchise, thus recasting the central character of Wong Fei-Hung with another Mainland Wushu champion, Vincent Zhao. This led to a fourth episode, directed by a Yuen Bun, that ended up being far less successful than any of the Jet Li installments. It did have fixtures of the franchise like Max Mok’s Leung Fu or Xiong Xin Xin’s Clubfoot, but the absence not only of Jet Li, but also of Rosamund Kwan’s Aunt Yee, another major character in the franchise, coupled with uninspired direction, made it look like a bargain bin iteration of the Chinese hero’s adventures. And so for the fifth episode, Tsui Hark returned to the director’s chair, signed his protege for the lead role again, managed for Rosamund Kwan to return, but more importantly tweaked the formula of the series a little bit by making it more akin to a serial, mostly by including pirates and a treasure into the mix.
Once Upon A Time In China 5 has Wong Fei-Hung (Vincent Zhao) and his entourage (including his father, played by Lau Shun) on their way to Hong Kong when they stop by a town that is regularly raided for food and valuables by a gang of pirate led by a legendary – and possibly centuries-old – chief. Master Wong’s sense of justice as well as the townspeople’s insistant requests for help compell him to stay and help the beleaguered town. At the same time, a love triangle unfolds as Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) discovers her sister Aunt May (Jean Wong who had replaced Kwan in the fourth episode) has a crush on Wong Fei-Hung.
The latter romantic subplot does much to harm the film’s pace, as we get scene after scene of bickering and misunderstandings between the three, though Jean Wong is so charming as Aunt May, you find yourself rooting for her instead franchise stalwart Aunt Yee. A lot of time is lost also on Leung Fu’s ego trip as he realizes he’s the least famous of Master Wong’s disciples ; Max Mok was always an uneasy replacement for Yuen Biao who played the role in the first film, and seeing him here makes one rejoice he didn’t come back for the series’ last installment. In between those scenes, the plot is a pleasant regurgitation of good old tropes of the – then doomed – pirate movie, for instance with a treasure room fight and a mysterious pirate chief played by the great choreographer Tung Wei. It’s actually a refreshing change of pace to have Wong Fei-Hung thrust into a different kind of setting, and it leads to unusual sights like Wong wielding a gun, or fighting a skeleton (yes, this film had the jump on Pirates of the Carribean for the concept of an ‘undead pirate’, though it doesn’t really play it out).
But the little pleasures of this film are rather in the supporting cast, be it the aforementioned Jean Wong and Tung Wei, or Xiong Xin Xin’s well-honed performance as the awesome Clubfoot, who doubles as man of action with his jaw-dropping kicks, and as comic-relief with his slightly mentally-challenged tendencies. Also delightful is Elaine Lui as a nimble pirate woman ; at the time she was making a habit of stealing thunder in villainous supporting roles (see Red Wolf), and here she does a lot with a small role. Once again, Vincent Zhao provides a suitable but unremarkable replacement for Jet Li : he’s just as fast and precise in the fights, but everywhere else he just feels a bit bland, failing to really claim the character. Upon its release, Once Upon A Time In China 5, didn’t have much more success than episode 4, proving the franchise just couldn’t do without Jet Li.
Long Story Short : A pleasant tweak of the Once Upon A Time In China formula with serial overtones, this installment suffers from overgrown romantic and comic subplots, and from the fact that Vincent Zhao is simply no Jet Li. **1/2