The fight in the White Lotus Sect Temple sits beautifully within the plot structure of Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2). The Sect have been right proper pests during most of the film, and show a decided penchant for nasty violence and rabid xenophobia. Their potential to undermine social harmony is clearly demonstrated. Obviously Wong Fei Hung (played by Jet Li), that turn of the century Chinese martial arts superhero, has to take them down. This much is obvious from the beginning of the film: the pre-credit scene shows the Sect engaging in some hideous shenanigans. This scene then segues into a shot of our hero, accompanied by the film’s ridiculously catchy theme tune, travelling on a speeding train. We just somehow know that he is zooming along to end up in an adventure that will see him sorting these feral mystics out. The fight in the White Lotus Temple shows him doing this in virtuoso style. This fight scene accomplishes several things for the film. In plot terms it resolves the threat of the White Lotus sect. Thematically director Tsui Hark uses the Sect to address the issues of xenophobia and superstition. In terms of character definition, the viewer is given a good 15 minutes of Wong Fei Hung demonstrating his courage and integrity. In terms of entertainment value, this scene gives the film a tremendous lift.
This scene is so well constructed and executed as a set piece that I feel that, as important a scene as it is to the overall film, it could almost work as well as a self contained short film or a mini Chinese Opera. In his excellent book Chasing Dragons, David West quotes Matrix Director Larry Wachowski from ‘American Cinematographer’ magazine:
“American film makers have gotten to the point where they create their fights in the editing room. Those types of sequences are just designed for a visceral, flash-cut impact, and the audience’s brains are never really engaged… Hong Kong action directors actually bring narrative arcs into the fights, and tell a little story within the fighting. (Probst, American Cinematograher Magazine, 1999, p 34).” P. 243
Yuen Wu Ping (who choreographed OUTIC 2 and the Matrix films) has framed this fight scene around a narrative arc, as well as packing it with virtuoso movement, references to religious and mystical symbolism, and choreographic sequences that consolidate the themes of the film.