Once Upon A Time In China And America

How do I hate this movie, let me count the ways. This is my least favourite Jet Li movie by a country mile. Everything is wrong with it, from the Worzel Gummidge type hairdo on the actor
playing Billy
to the nasty synthesized music.

“The script, which was written as the film was being shot, is unfocused” (David West, Chasing Dragons, p 186). This is putting it mildly. The plot basically involves Wong Fei Hung and entourage travelling to visit an ex-student who now resides in the American West. Wong gets separated from his fellow travellers, suffers amnesia, is taken in by Indians (shades of Shanghai Noon, which is a much better film) and eventually returns and beats up bad guys. This story failed to engage me but often story isn’t the most important thing about kung fu movies. I tend to watch them, first and foremost, for the choreography and visual spectacle. The lack of focus in the script is especially puzzling when you consider how disciplined the story telling was in the rest of the Once Upon a Time in China series. The sense of cohesiveness in terms of themes and the lovely production values that were present in especially the first 3 movies in the series are not present here.

Sammo Hung is rightly renowned as one of the genre’s great creative forces but if it didn’t state clearly in the credits that Sammo Hung was the choreographer and director on this film (aided by notables such as Lau Kar Wing and Xiong Xin Xin) I would find this hard to believe. The direction is completely pedestrian, and there was nothing choreographically that grabbed me.

Prior to appearing in this film Jet Li had, of course, distinguished himself in the iconic role of Wong Fei Hung but in this movie I found his performance to be somewhat lacklustre. There are some scenes where all he manages to do is look faintly bored and cranky. The rest of the cast attempts to scurry its way through that unfocused script and the camera continues its love affair with Rosamund Kwan, but all too little effect.

The film hits rock bottom with the appearance of its main villain, a nameless Mexican bandit played by Joseph Sayah. The introductory scene for this character begins with a side shot of his bum as he pulls up his pants after doing a poo in the back woods. Sammo, was this really necessary? He then indulges in a bit of self-mutilation, kills a wolf (as you do) and howls at the moon. Yes, actually howls at the moon. Poor old Sayah’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that his makeup is laughable. There are primary school plays happening out there that feature better make up.

The climactic fight scene between Wong and the Mexican Bandit fails to really shine, although there are some nice camera angles being used to shoot the 2 performers on the windmill. The problem is that the Mexican bandit never appears to be a match for Wong. We never get the impression that Wong is anything but in control of this fight. We are shown Wong steadily beating up a fighter who is not quite his equal, and this just doesn’t square with the honourable Wong we
have come to know and love. In the Once Upon a Time in China series we have been shown a Wong who is an adept (and even willing) pugilist but he has never been depicted as a brute or a bully. I won’t say that this fight scene goes that far, but Wong’s squaring up to an inferior looking challenger goes on a mite too long to gel with what we know of the character.

Perhaps the deficiencies in the martial arts department are what lie at the roots of this film’s problems. The script is unfocused and some of the characterisations are silly, but since when did this stop me from loving many a Hong Kong kung fu film? As David West writes in his Chasing
Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Film,
“The script*… is underdeveloped, a major criticism leveled at kung fu cinema in general, but the narrative is not the principal point of interest. It was the demonstrations of Chinese martial arts that attracted audiences.” (p. 94)

The unfocused script of this film does not, perhaps, allow enough room in its structure or enough emphasis in its dramaturgy on the actual martial arts. There are fights featured, sure enough, and we even see some nice moves from Li and Xiong Xin Xin (reprising his role as Clubfoot), but they don’t seem to lift the film and somehow don’t carry the weight or impact that they do in most other kung fu movies. It is interesting that this film is set in the West, because this is a criticism I would level at Hollywood vehicles that have been devised for Jet Li and Jackie Chan.

At the end of the day, I found this film tedious to watch, and completely lacking in interest or charm. Aspects of the film might be badly done, but in the final analysis I can forgive it for being bad but I can’t forgive it for being boring.

*The script referred to in this particular quote is that of the Kwan Tak Hing film How Wong Fey
Hung Pitted a Lion Against the Dragon.

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6 Responses to Once Upon A Time In China And America

  1. The film was shot just outside of Austin, Texas at the time. I had a few acquaintances who were extras on that film. The finished film left a whole lot to be desired. Your take is spot on. This may be Jet’s worst Hong Kong film. Overall Cradle 2 the Grave is still the worst one.

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  2. dorkarama says:

    I had some friends who worked on the film. It was such a mess that halfway through filming, most of the crew was fired and then replacements brought in,as if the poor film was the crew’s fault. They were literally making the story up as they went along. I think it was a classic case of a movie being rushed into and through production in order to meet a target release date (a common occurence in HK cinema when the big Chinese New Year releases are concerned).

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    • Interesting, Dorkorama. Poor crew. I can well believe that this film was a rush job.

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      • sibongiseni says:

        the only part thats interests me in this film is where clubfoot fights his master to help him regain his memory. i love the way he potrays the antagonists of the past film (iron robe yim and general lan). though im a bit confused on how on earth does clubfoot know iron robe yim and general lan because he was not even there on the 1st and 2nd editions of once upon a time in china…lol. but nonetheless i love the way he imitates these two villains, especially when he shows lan’s skills with the wet cloth and pretends to be one of those manchu officials

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  3. sbongiseni says:

    poor film indeed.
    and why in the world was clubfoot called “seven” in this film

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