Review: Once Upon a Time in China & America (1997)

Wong Fei Hung goes west. OK, technically he goes east to get to the American West, but it’s very much Wong Fei Hung in a western genre film. The Once Upon a Time in China film series has always had a historical fiction slant, so the premise of this entry, while more fanciful than those that came before it, is different in degree rather than kind. Once Upon a Time in China & America (OUATICAA) slides into self-parody and is a jumbled mess, but there’s still fun to be found here.

Lovely images are still put on screen.

Tsui Hark was involved in some capacity for all films in this series and this time he is the producer. Having absconded from the franchise after the third film to play Wong Fei Hung in a stylised chicken suit for Last Hero in China, Jet Li returns after Vincent Zhao played the character in two films and a 1996 television series. Rosamund Kwan is Aunt Yee/Thirteenth Aunt/Wong Fei Hung’s fiancée, and Xiong Xin Xin is once again Seven, still retaining his off-kilter acrobatic fighting style from his time known as Clubfoot in Once Upon a Time in China 3. There’s no Leung Foon character this time around, but a lot of other supporting roles fill out the roster. Wrangling the whole film together is Sammo Hung as director.

Wong Fei Hung, Thirteenth Aunt and Seven are heading to the American west to visit an overseas branch of Po Chi Lam clinic, run by Fei Hung’s student Ah Sol (Chan Kwok-Pong, playing what I believe is the recurring Wong Fei Hung side character often known as Buck Teeth So), on its first anniversary of opening. Along the way, Fei Hung gets caught up in all sorts of western hijinks. He loses his memory, is adopted by a Native American tribe, gets his memory back, saves the day, upholds truth, justice and the Chinese way, bores everyone with his speeches and heads back home again. So none of it actually takes place in China after all. Series touchstones like cultural clashes, the tension between tradition and modernisation and the honourable role of a master martial artist and doctor are still in play, but there’s no central plot or theme to tie everything together. The main villain’s bizarre introductory scene is so disconnected from the rest of the film it could have been inserted anywhere, and the setup for the finale only occurs in the last third of the film. This is more a bunch of situations and set pieces strung together like an 80s Hong Kong action comedy; something Sammo excelled at, but an awkward fit to cap off this Wong Fei Hung sequence of films. Then again, Kwan Tak-Hing’s long running stint as the folk hero did include Wong Fei Hung’s Battle with the Gorilla, so there is precedent for oddball escapades like this.

As an “eastern western” OUATICAA shares many similarities with Shanghai Noon, including a shared origin. The way Jackie Chan tells the story in the updated version of his late 90s autobiography, Sammo used Jackie’s idea to make this film without Jackie’s involvement or knowledge. The two were catching up over beers at a point when Sammo was under pressure to come up with a film for Chinese New Year. Jackie had long wanted to make an eastern western, and also had an idea for a character with amnesia lost in the wilderness. Given they only had four months to get something made and these plots required bigger productions, the former Chinese opera school buddies instead made Mr. Nice Guy. To Jackie’s shock, OUATICAA appeared shortly after, which led to an apology from Sammo, Jackie going ahead and using the amnesia idea anyway for Who Am I? and the eastern western premise for Shanghai Noon. Taking that story at face value, the creation of OUATICAA is somewhat dubious, but on the upside, we have more movies to enjoy. Plus it’s not like an amnesiac protagonist and alternate western genre remixes had never been done before. Given the grief this incident caused in their relationship, it was wonderful to see Sammo and Jackie team up briefly in Around the World in 80 Days, especially given the manner in which Sammo entered that story!

Stacking OUATICAA and Shanghai Noon side by side is unflattering to the former. Most obviously, OUATICAA is lower budget and looks much rougher. It also carries that odd feeling of dislocation when a very Hong Kong style of film is set overseas; the high octane action design, broad racial stereotyping and low quality of many of the English speaking supporting roles and extras being notable examples. A few exceptions to this general trend are Roger Yuan — who played a major villain in Shanghai Noon — in a small role as a shady foreman, and experienced and prolific stunt performer, stunt co-ordinator and actor Jeff Wolfe as blonde cowboy Billy. He’s a refreshingly decent chap, cocky but upright, which makes for a nice fit with the Chinese characters without too much friction. His respect and camaraderie with Seven is particularly enjoyable. When Billy asks to be taught kung fu and Seven demonstrates vertical leg stretching, Billy is seen in many later scenes with his leg nonchalantly up on a table, putting the suggestion into practice while also accentuating his bravado.

Billy and Seven getting to know each other.

The action in general is fine, but there is nothing as memorable as Jet Li’s earlier appearances as Wong Fei Hung. His showdown with a Mexican outlaw, played by martial artist Joseph Sayah, has some dynamic individual moments, but is tonally very flat. This fight is their first meeting, and the outlaw’s crazed bug-eyed stares and unhinged demeanour make him a one note bad guy. There’s none of the sense of respect and regret of highly skilled fighters coming into conflict because of their moral differences that underlie the best Once Upon a Time in China battles. In something of a self-defeating move, OUATICAA also recreates some of the greatest one-on-one fights from the series’ history. It’s a very cool use of action in plot, as Seven mimics the appearance and fighting style of several of Wong Fei Hung’s toughest opponents in a desperate attempt to overcome the master’s memory loss. The choreography is good, but the original fights were staged and shot incredibly well, so these re-enactments suffer by contrast.

Xiong Xin Xin actually comes off looking better in action overall than Jet Li in this film. As well as his cosplay duels with Wong Fei Hung, Seven gets the western staple bar brawl and he looks totally boss. The broad brimmed hats he wears throughout the film also highlight the canted angle at which the character holds himself; the tilt of his head, the limp and the distinctive diagonally spread arms of his typical ready stance.

Costuming is a department of the film that is used consistently well. Without passing judgment on their historical accuracy, their application for dramatic purposes is sound. Aside from hats, the Wong Fei Hung of these movies stuck to traditional Chinese attire. After his memory loss and acceptance into a Native American tribe, he acquires some more layers to his usual clothing, but part of his regaining his memory is returning to his regular dress. The other Chinese characters sport western clothing — in both the geographical and film genre sense — to varying degrees, but Aunt Yee, befitting her cosmopolitan background, is wearing a cowgirl outfit soon after arriving in town.

Wong Fei Hung and his adopted family.

The music is also much more varied than in past series entries and is one way in which OUATICAA stands out successfully. There’s many a reprise of Under the General’s Orders, the famous song paired with many a Wong Fei Hung film, but here it is given a couple of different versions with different instrumentation and pacing to fit the setting. The music also transitions smoothly between diagetic and non-diagetic use on several occasions and in a very different application, breaks the fourth wall as Ah Sol musters an impromptu band to play the theme tune at a critical moment.

It’s an inconsistent whirlwind dash through western clichés with a Hong Kong spin, but OUATICAA serves up more than basic beans and bread for the die hard martial arts movie connoisseur and knowing the context behind the film is almost as interesting as the product itself. In addition to the suspect originality of the story, it’s also something of a bridge to Sammo’s stint in American productions. Martial Law came out the next year and a few faces from this film pop up in episodes of that show. All this perspective aside, Sammo still has the best riff on western genre stories from a Hong Kong angle tucked in his belt anyway with Millionaires Express.

6 last meals out of 10.
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