The second part of the story, released four months after the first, brings back most of the cast and shifts the setting from Canton to the headquarters of the Red Flower Society. Jet Li’s Fong is apprenticed to the leader of the group, whose ostensible aim is the restoration of the Ming Dynasty, but which functions much like an idealized communist collective (sharing wealth with the community through mutual aid projects, for example). The group has a draconian set of rules based on deference to seniority, however, which are exploited by an ambitious underling named Yu who maneuvers to take control of the society for himself and turn it into a gang of rapacious bandits (ie capitalists, I suppose). This is all complicated by the fact that Red Flower’s leader is in fact the secret brother of the current Manchu Emperor, which is all about to become common knowledge because a gang of samurai has imported a Sacred Box from Japan which contains research proving his lineage.
So the sequel seems to lean even more heavily into the plot of Louis Cha’s The Book and the Sword, which I pretty much know only from Ann Hui’s two-part adaptation, which I’ve only seen in a clumsy VHS rip with questionable subtitles. But I guess the plan here is to take this popular story and destabilize it by putting the semi-comic Fong Sai-yuk character into it (he’s not in the novel at all) along with his mother and seeing what happens. In the first film that meant a lot more comedy, but this one takes on a distinctly darker tone. Though to be sure there are comic romantic subplots for both son and mother. Fong accidentally seduces the daughter of the governor, played by Amy Kwok, about whom the hkmdb says “(she) has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California. She turned down a job offer from NASA for an acting career in Hong Kong, according to her husband, award-winning actor Lau Ching-wan.” She’s been married to Lau since 1998, and appears to have done most of her acting on television. But she accomplishes the impossible here: she makes Jet Li seem like a credible romantic hero. The other romance is between Fong’s mother, played by Josephine Siao, with a new character, a Red Flower veteran who has become a kind of mentor to Fong and is in fact Siao’s former fellow martial arts student and love interest (we see their past parting in a grainy sepia-toned flashback). He’s played by director Corey Yuen himself.
There are a handful of smaller action sequences: an opening fight where Jet Li gets to show off his 'spinning around while swinging a flaming pole' skills; a spectacular fight against samurai on a river that makes creative use of paralyzing nerve point attacks and a swarm of bees; and a showcase for Yuen where he takes on the film’s villain. But the two big set pieces share the same basic idea as the standout fight from the first film: stacking stuff up on top of other stuff in incredibly chaotic ways. The first involves a “king of the hill” style free-for-all against a bunch of Kwok’s potential husbands, a kind of rerun of the fight against Sibelle Hu in Part One. In the first film, Li’s fight is followed by the unexpected appearance of his mother, leading to further romantic complications. In Part Two, it’s Fong’s wife (Michelle Reis) who unexpectedly appears, again leading to further romantic complications. The second is the big finale, which involves Fong needing to rescue his captive mother (as he had to rescue his father in the first film), who has been strung up atop a precarious stack of wooden benches. Again Fong has to wade through an army of bad guys to get to his parent (in the first film he did it on a horse, in this one it’s through an awesome display of blind swordsmanship). This fight is as brutal as its stack of benches is ingenious, with Fong completely flipping out at the end and pounding the bad guy to death, a shockingly dark moment in a light comedy even by the standards of Corey Yuen’s dedication to tonal inconsistency.
I don’t know that there’s a coherent message to be found in Fong Sai-yuk II, or in the two films as a whole. They appear to have been shot, at least partially, on the Mainland, which seems significant. And surely the insertion of a specifically Cantonese hero into a story of the rivalries between the Qing and Ming is meaningful, coming on the eve of Hong Kong’s integration into the PRC. As are the apparent parallels between the internal conflicts within the Red Flower Society and the struggle within the Communist Party between idealist collectivism and capitalist corruption. But in the end, I think we can see Corey Yuen (and co-writer Jeffrey Lau’s) response to the whole ideological mess: rather than stay with the Red Flower Society and keep up the fight to restore the Ming or reform the Qing or whatever, Fong simply decides to retire from the martial world altogether and just ride off into the sunset with his mom and his two adoring wives. And honestly, who could blame him.