Once Upon a Time in China and America Review: Jet Li returns to the Wong Fei-hung role

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.

I will never not think it’s hilarious that Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark stole Jackie Chan’s dream project idea for a kung fu Western. And used it to make a sixth Once Upon a Time in China (Hoang Phi Hong: Tay Vuc Hung Su).

I bet he’s still mad about it. I haven’t seen Shanghai Noon. But I have no doubt it’s glossier, better acted, and much, much worse than this. That this was the last project for both Sammo and Tsui before they too arrived in America is surely no accident. And I suppose Jackie got his revenge by both inspiring the producers of Sammo’s TV series Martial Law to add Arsenio Hall to the cast in order to recreate the Rush Hour dynamic, and also by making a ton of money. But on the other hand: Sammo never had to work with Brett Ratner. So he’s probably still ahead.

Jet Li returning in the role of Wong Fei-hung

Totally abandoning any kind of logical chronology, Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li  or Ly Lien Kiet). 13th Aunt and Clubfoot (now named “Seven”) are in America to visit Buck-Toothed So. Who has opened an American branch of Po Chi Lam for Chinese workers in Fort Stockton. Which might be a made up place, though there is a Fort Stockton in West Texas. I suspect it would take more than ten days to get there by stagecoach from San Francisco by OUATIC travel time.

The last film ended after the Boxer Rebellion failed, which would mean this one would take place more than a year after that (So was still in China in that film), so at least 1903. But the Fort Stockton we find is a relic from 30 to 40 years earlier, if for no other reason than that the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigration from China, was passed in 1882.

It’s clear that Wong hasn’t so much journeyed to America, as he’s journeyed into a Western. The characters and setting aren’t historical, they’re versions of cinematic history. It’s not real Indians he finds, but movie Indians: first attacking a stagecoach for no reason. Then adopting the amnesiac Wong into their peace-loving tribe, Pocahontas-style. Throwing Wong Fei-hung into a Western completely destabilizes it. His moral vision reforming Billy the Kid into an upright pillar of the community.

Seven Chinese men set up to be legally lynched

An immigrant-friendly mayor while his speeches do little for his own community. Putting the laborers, led by Richard Ng and Patrick Lung Kong, to sleep. The villains in the martial art film (phim hanh dong vo thuat) are the racist white establishment, led by the corrupt mayor, local law enforcement (the kindly sheriff) is sympathetic yet powerless in the face of greed and anti-Chinese sentiment. That the film’s final villain (a bank robber hired by the mayor) is ethnically ambiguous. Sporting Fu Manchu eyebrows and beard and deadly ninja star spurs, is surely no accident. What Wong conquers is not so much racism as a version of Hollywood racism. The Yellow Peril monster of America’s id.

The final fight is striking: Seven Chinese men set up to be legally lynched. Incidentally rescued by the betrayed criminal gang in their quest for revenge on the mayor. Wong and his men defeat the villains of course. But after the fight is over: 13th Aunt arrives with the friendly Indians who had adopted Wong: a cavalry appearance too late to save anyone. But a nice gesture nonetheless. Wong though, refuses to recognize them: even Wong Fei-hung forgets the Indians.

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