Li, a hero whose time is always then

THERE is something about martial arts star Jet Li and Ching-era martial arts legends that go hand in hand. As the anti-Manchu patriot Fong Sai-yuk, Li has found a hero which suits his screen person as ideally as the kung-fu master Wong Fei-hung portrayed by him in Once Upon a Time in China Parts I, II, and III. Fong and Wong are spiritual brothers, fiercely loyal to the Han race, righteously fighting the forces of evil, possessed with a sense of humour, and most importantly, brilliant practitioners of martial arts.

In Fong Sai Yuk, director Yuen Kwai has assembled these audience-pleasing elements into a lavishly produced package guaranteed to bring in big bucks. But despite its many resplendent parts, the motion picture is a less-than-enthralling experience. It's amatter of pacing.

The picture is all quick cuts, investing it with a monotonous rhythm. Each martial arts sequence is not only too long but just as spectacular as the one before, with the result that the picture never builds to a climax. Rather, the movie is one long climax.

Fong Sai Yuk may be a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, but there is no denying the parts are impressive. Chief among these assets is Josephine Siao, who plays Fong's mother, and steals every scene in which she appears. Whether masquerading as Fong's fictitious elder brother or battling the bad guys, her quirky drollery always hits the spot.

Li is also given ample opportunity to display his prowess, with the added attraction of seeing him in combat with newcomer Chiu Man-cheuk, who portrays his nemesis from the Manchu court. Chiu takes over the role of Wong in the upcoming Once Upon a Time in China (part IV), so Fong Sai Yuk provides the tantalising spectacle of watching the two Wongs in a life-and-death struggle.

Like Wong, the Fong character as portrayed by Li is rich enough to warrant a continuing series of adventures. But the hero is more at risk from pacing than Manchu assassins.