“All Chinese martial artists must stick together” affirms Wong Fei-hung, justifying himself to a dejected disciple for supposedly having appeased a local rival in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (黄飞鸿之南北英雄, Huáng Fēihóng zhī Nánběi Yīngxióng). Returning to the role he first took over from Jet Li closing out Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, Vincent Zhao stars in and produces this VOD outing for the legendary folk hero in which he once again valiantly defends the values of traditionalism while contending with an ever changing society.
Twin arrivals, one expected the other not, spell change for Fei-hung and his trio of assistants, the first being the return of 13th Aunt Shaojun (Wei Na) who had been studying abroad, and the other being a crazed, zombie-like figure who wanders into the temple after escaping from a fire at the docks. If that weren’t enough to contend with, a new master, Wu (Michael Tong Man-Lung), has also arrived in town to teach his brand of martial arts with the Northern Fist Club, immediately entering a conflict with Fei-hung’s guys when Kuan (Li Lu-Bing) comes to the rescue of a mysterious woman who started a fight with them. Meanwhile, Fei-hung is suspicious of a new Western-style hospital which has been set up in order to treat victims of the opium crisis which he feels is ironic as he holds the Westerners responsible for getting the Chinese hooked on opium and then forcing them to pay to be cured of it. Of course, it turns out that the hospital, apparently backed by the British East India Company, is very definitely up to no good, led by the rather vampirically named “Vlad”.
Finding himself faced with the threat of a superpowered opium which turns those who use it into rage-fulled killing machines, Fei-hung remains preoccupied with the erosion of Chinese traditions in the face of increasing Westernisation. Indeed, Shaojun who has been studying Western medicine in Europe has apparently even forgotten how to use chopsticks and asks for a knife and fork instead which it seems Fei-hung would not have denied her only well-meaning underling Qi decides to bring her something not quite as suitable for the dinner table. Likewise, seeing Fei-hung running a needle over a flame, Shaojun immediately runs for her alcohol bottle only for him to protest that he’s always been taught fire is enough. Nevertheless, he’s not totally against Western learning, eventually conceding that he could not have cured his patient on his own, it took one of Shaojun’s injections to clear his acupuncture points so he could eliminate the “poison” though moxibustion.
Even so, Fei-hung is at the mercy of the evil Vlad who, as he feared, uses the rivalry between the martial arts masters to divide and conquer, seducing the apparently equally anti-Western henchmen of Wu by hopping them up on his new wonder drug as a means to take out Fei-hung and become the town number one. Allegories abound, but the lines drawn between covert capitalist colonialism and the drugs trade are anything but subtle as Vlad sells his super soldier drugs plan as a remedy to the supposed weakness of the Chinese physique that will allow them to escape subjugation, something which is of particular interest to his conflicted underling Xiaoyue (Wei Xiao-Huan) whose mother was apparently worked to death in a labour camp. “Your lives are worthless” Vlad reveals as the mask slips, “nothing is cheaper than you” justifying his decision to test his drugs on Chinese subjects with vaguely eugenicist overtones.
All of that aside, however, first time feature director Lin Zhenzhao makes sure to include all the Wong Fei-hung staples from the training montage which opens the film to an innovative set piece involving Fei-hung’s trademark umbrella coupled with his obvious confusion with Shaojun’s “upgraded” European model, its steel spokes, and “improved” opening and closing mechanism. Given the film’s destination for the online streaming market as opposed to cinema screens, production values are surprisingly high with well populated crowd scenes, convincing production design, and nicely choreographed fight sequences including that all important shadowless kick. While not perhaps a return to the Once Upon a Time in China highs, Unity of Heroes nevertheless holds its own as another entertaining entry in the Wong Fei-hung saga.
Original trailer (English subtitles)