Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) Movie Review

As was the case with the original Once Upon a Time in China (heretofore known as OUATIC) I don’t expect a lot of historical accuracies in Chinese movies dealing with the “outside world.” It’s unfortunately a common problem with a lot of movies regardless of country of origin when dealing with foreign subjects. Americans do it in movies set outside of America. How is an American suppose to know what Russia or China or Japan is really like? The smart ones do research and hire consultants, and the not-so-smart ones don’t even bother. (OUATICA is a good example.) It’s the way of the world: you never know as much about the “other guys” as you do about your own backyard.

OUATIC and America (heretofore known as OUATICA) is the 6th installment in the OUATIC franchise starring Jet Li as legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hong. In OUATICA, Wong journeys to the American west with cousin/love interest Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) to visit one of his students who has come over years ago to set up an American branch of Wong’s school. Before they reach their destination trouble erupts when an Indian raiding party attack and Wong is separated from Yee and (fellow traveler and student) Seven (Xin Xin Xiong).

Wong ends up in a friendly Indian village with amnesia while Yee and Seven makes it to the town only to find the Chinese workers being badly oppressed by the townspeople and its corrupt law officers. Along the way, the Chinese trio picks up Billy (Jeff Wolfe), an American cowboy who eventually befriends the Chinese, and becomes a sidekick to Li’s Wong as they take on the town law, bank robbers, and some mean Indians.

(If the above premise sounds a little too familiar, it’s probably because the Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon was almost an exact replica of OUATICA. In Hollywood it’s called “inspired by,” but to the rest of us it’s called “ripping off.” Besides having a Chinese martial artist who teams up with an easygoing (and highly accepting) California blond white man, Shanghai Noon also throws in OUATICA’s subplot involving Li (Wong) and his trials and tribulations (and even romance) with the Indians.)

OUATICA is not the kind of film you use for history lessons, although there are some very real (and embarrassing, from an American point of view) factual accounts of the mistreatment of the Chinese in the early American west. If you were to compare OUATICA with the first in the series, OUATIC, you would see a vastly improved film (although considering the numerous faults of the first film, that’s not saying much).

For those who cares to compare, doesn’t it strike you as odd that in the first film the so-called “American soldiers” were carrying musket rifles and in this latest installment, supposedly taking place just a few years later, everyone is carrying Colt revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles? (See what I mean when I say some people don’t bother with research?) The movie’s actions scenes are very well done and not repetitious, and Jet Li and co-star Xin Xin Xiong as “Clubfoot” Seven handles much of the movie’s stunts. The slightly odd-looking nature of Seven in particular makes his manhandling of the racist cowboys a hoot to watch.

Li is perfectly at home battling Indians or cowboys or bank robbers, and American addition Jeff Wolfe proves to be a cowboy with a powerful kick. The mixing of various fight choreography and situations make OUATICA stand out. After all, how many times can you stand watching wave after wave of nameless and faceless Chinese “villains” swarm the hero only to fall back like Dominos when they’re beaten back? Believe me, I’ve gotten tired of that type of “action.”

OUATICA was shot on location in Texas by director Sammo Hung (TV’s “Martial Law”), an action star himself, and the lush look of the authentic west (much of Texas is still open country) lends credence to the movie as well as giving it a nice, bright look. The movie’s early segments in the countryside are some of its best, but once the movie returns to the town, scenery takes a backseat to ordinary set designs again.

I think it is fair to say that action auteur (and the movie’s writer) Tsui Hark has absolutely no idea how to write for western actors. The Caucasian actors in OUATICA are doomed to act and speak in the most clich’ way imaginable. Every single line of dialogue that comes out of a white character’s mouth is so poorly written that one wonders if, as research for the movie, Tsui Hark simply sat down to watch 1,000 hours of American TV and jotted down all the clich’ lines he could catch in time. This means you shouldn’t expect anything profound about OUATICA, and while the movie does deal with the subject of white racism against the Chinese, it handles the matter so clumsily and in such a stereotypical fashion that all resonance is loss and we’re left to wait for another racist cowboy to pick on a Chinese character before Billy, or Seven, can come save the day. (Oh, and if I see another movie character go into a bar and get into a fight again…)

OUATICA is probably not the best film in the OUATIC series, but I have to admit it’s light years better than the redundant and boring original. Or maybe it’s just seeing a diminutive Chinese man punching and kicking the living daylights out of a tall, gangly bank robber that made my day.

Sammo Hung (director) / Hark Tsui (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li….Wong Fei-Hong
Rosamund Kwan….Aunt Yee
Xin Xin Xiong….’Clubfoot’ Seven
Kwok-Pong Chan….Sol
Jeff Wolfe….Billy

Buy Once Upon a Time in China and America on DVD