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With: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Xiong Xin Xin, Chan Kwok-Pong, Jeff Wolfe, Chrysta Bell Zucht, Joseph Sayah, Roger Yuan, Richard Ng, Daniel Lujan
Written by: Tsui Hark
Directed by: Sammo Hung
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Cantonese, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 02/22/1997

Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wong Fei-Hung the Sixth

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jet Li returns as Wong Fei-Hung, the legendary Hong Kong hero, in this sixth film in the series that everyone thought was dead.

Once Upon a Time in China parts One and Two were big hits and extraordinary films. Part Three, a little less so. Part Four was made without either director Tsui Hark or Li. Tsui returned to direct Part Five without Li, but it was not well received. (There were rumors that Li and Tsui were not getting along.) So, what do you do if you're the savviest producer in Hong Kong? You write a clever script which brings Wong Fei Hung to the old west, hire Sammo Hung to direct, and convince Jet Li to return.

From the moment Li appears on the screen, there is a triumphant note in the air. He is traveling across the dusty west in a stagecoach with Aunt Yee and Seven, and stops to rescue a blonde gunfighter named Billy. The band is soon attacked by Indians, and we have the first of several old-west vs. kung-fu fight scenes. The fight ends badly when Li, Aunt Yee and Seven land in a river. Wong conks his head on a rock and loses his memory. He is saved by the Indians. Wong then saves them (his fighting skills come instinctually). Eventually he makes it into town, and his crew help restore his memory. Then there is a moment of quiet before some evil white guys plan a bank robbery and pin it on the Chinese. Inexplicably, the same evil white guys ride into town blowing everything up, which saves the Chinese from being hung. Then the climactic fight scene.

The American actors in Once Upon a Time in China and America are pretty bad, though not as bad as in Hung's Mr. Nice Guy, also released this year. The dialogue is slightly better here, as there are three languages to play with (Chinese, English, and Native American). Strangely, there are English subtitles for everything in the movie, including the English.

Hung has directed some of Jackie Chan's best films, but I don't think he's a great director. Pitted with Jet Li, he falters, and his action scenes are not as clear as they could be. One only has to remember the work of Tsui Hark (as director), Ching Siu Tung, John Woo or Ringo Lam for comparison. Hung also tends toward pathos and unnecessary lingerings for "dramatic effect," such as extra close-ups on Jet Li's head hitting the rock, and fallen bad guys with horrible head wounds. Hung as an actor has always played a buffoon and a fat foil, and it makes sense that he would try to overemphasize in the other direction behind the camera.

Nonetheless, Jet Li is in top form, and he is beautiful in motion. I enjoyed watching him in this unusual setting as well, and I enjoyed certain aspects of this script. It's not anywhere near the original Once Upon a Time in China, but it's a great return to form.

Note: viewed at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival.

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