ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA (1997) review

After his dispute with director Tsui Hark led to his leaving the Once Upon A Time In China franchise and being replaced by Vincent Zhao in the following two films, Jet Li finally came back to his signature role of Wong Fei-Hung in this fifth sequel, directed by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and produced by Tsui Hark himself. In Once Upon A Time In China And America (heretofore OUATICAA), we meet Wong Fei-Hung in the American far west, on a carriage headed to a small town where his disciple Bucktooth is founding a clinic (named Po-Chi Lam, after Wong’s own clinic in China). With him are franchise regulars Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and Clubfoot (Xiong Xin Xin). On their way they help out Bill (Jeff Wolfe) a stranded cowboy, who develops a growing sympathy for the Chinese, which is not the case of everyone else in the town, the Chinese immigrants being endlessly segregated and submitted to arbitrary restrictions. But when the carriage is attacked by Indians, Wong hits his head on a rock while trying to rescue Aunt Yee, and his body goes adrift in the nearby river. When he wakes up, he’s in an Indian village and has lost his memory. The plot thickens as a wolf-loving outlaw and his gang rob the town’s bank and the law turns to the Chinese immigrants as scapegoats.

The story behind OUATICAA’s east-meets-far-west, conceit, is that Jackie Chan was developping his own film based on this formula (which later gave Shanghai Noon and its sequel), when Sammo Hung heard of it, and in a way, stole the idea. Later, he apologized to his old friend, which is a bit strange since Hung had already used this formula almost a decade before in his masterpiece Millionaire’s Express, a kung-fu western in essence, so in a way Chan was probably the one borrowing the idea. Anyway, OUATICAA was rushed in production to be ready for the New Year period, where Jet Li’s return to the role that made him a star was sure to be a big hit (and it turned out to be just that). It was thus shot in december to be ready for just a few months later, and it shows : while Tsui Hark’s installments were lavish films, OUATICAA feels more pared down, confined as it is to a stock Western town and a few plains where hastily painted, fake-looking Indians dwell. The white men are all walking talking caricatures, with of course a special mention for the big bad outlaw who is first seen defecating in the woods, after what he proceeds to provoke a wolf and kill him, as you do in those circumstances.

With the goofiness that surrounds it, the segregation angle is never as poignant as it should have been, but does yield a few heartfelt scenes of moral outrage, as the Chinese immigrants wonder why their good intentions are being construed as malice. It’s not Ivy League sociology, but it does serve to make the film stick in the mind a little longer. All the more so as the fights are far from memorable. Once again, the rushed factor comes into play : while the choreography has the Sammo Hung Kam-Bo seal of excellence, it is often a bit mundance (by Hong Kong standards of course) and edited too quick, with only some of Xiong Xin Xin’s amazing footwork and the final fight between Wong Fei-Hung and the outlaw of real note. Still, Jet Li is wonderful as always as the hero from China, and at the time must have reminded Chinese audience why they loved this character so much, after two lukewarm films where the able but charisma-challenged Vincent Zhao took on the role. And with the amnesia subplot, Li is allowed to shoot through the character’s stoicism and moral uptightness with flashes of goofiness reminiscent of one of his other famous roles, Fong Sai Yuk. The great Richard Ng provides some of the more palatable comic relief, but in the end the only truly striking aspect of this passable installment is composer’s Lowell Lo’s surprisingly effective and perfectly judged incorporation of banjo in the famous Wong Fei-Hung theme.

Long Story Short : A passable final film in the popular franchise, Once Upon A Time In China And America feels rushed in every way but still manages to entertain. Plus it has Jet Li showing why nobody does it better. **1/2

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