A brief note on the depiction of Westerners in Once Upon A Time in China

(This is the last in a series of blogs I have written about this film. The previous one was about the elements (water, fire, metal, etc.) in this film).

The Westerners in this film are depicted mostly as uncomplicated villains – callous, venal, exploitative capitalist pigs. However, the character of the old white haired priest, who offers to be a witness in favour of the film’s hero, balances the ledger, somewhat, as he shows himself to be a man of integrity, and finally of heroism. We are first introduced to this character at the beginning of the film in an interesting and amusing scene, where we see a choir of evangelist missionaries (lead by the priest) trying to out-sing a traditional Chinese band, who in turn ramp up the volume to drown out what they consider to be foul sounding singing (the choir are singing Handel, no less). When I was a kid growing up in rural Australia, I was used to seeing people around me cringe and put their hands over their ears as a reaction to hearing any kind of Asian music – to them it was just atonal noise. In this movie, it was a nice touch to see that gesture replicated exactly on screen, but this time by Chinese characters who were reacting to the sound of Western music. This is a slick and canny comment on cultural difference by director Tsui Hark. He cuts the humour of this scene short with another noise – the sound of a cannon being fired by one of the Western ships in the harbour. The noise drowns out the cacophony of the competing choir and teahouse band, and everyone, Western missionary and Chinese tea drinker alike, is momentarily sobered by this reminder of the looming Western military might and the entrepreneurial interests it seeks to enforce on the Chinese.

Another reminder that maybe not all Western influence is bad is accommodated by 2 Chinese characters. Medical student Buck Tooth So and Aunt Yee have both lived in the West and learnt English, and are not only comfortable with, but enthusiastic about, aspects of its influence. Buck Tooth So wants to learn Chinese medicine so that he can use it alongside the Western medical practices he has already studied. Aunt Yee is crazy about cameras. Both these characters can be seen to represent a discriminating and moderately paced acceptance of learning from the best of western influences.

This entry was posted in jet li, kung fu movies, martial arts movies, Once Upon A Time In China, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A brief note on the depiction of Westerners in Once Upon A Time in China

  1. Norbert says:

    A great blogging series comes to an end… (Looking forward to the next one).


    • You are being very kind…
      I have had thoughts about these movies pinging around in my head for so many years now. It is a relief to offload some of them and clear my mind. I am always amazed if anyone ever bothers to read my long winded ramblings.


  2. dorkarama says:

    I thought the movie was in many ways a commentary on the clash between China and tradition versus the West and modernism. Wong Fei-Hung represents traditional Confucian values in a way no other Cantonese hero can equal.


  3. Will Silver says:

    The depiction of westerners was one of the most interesting parts the last time I watched this. You really nail it with your analysis too.


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