Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997)

Directed by
misconceived from the start
Reviewed by Simon on 2003-06-08

Let's face it, this one was misconceived from the start. Whoever decided that what the series really needed to regain its steam was to move it to America? Shoot that man! Probably the same person that decided that Wong Fei Hung should lose his memory for most of the film too, and China's greatest national hero should be reduced to a clueless simpleton. I hate to say it, but Tsui Hark I'm looking at you!

Perhaps it's best to pretend this isn't really a Once Upon A Time In China film at all, as I'm sure the film suffers unfairly by association with the first two masterpieces in the series. It's just a story about some Chinese martial artists who travel to America to visit a friend, and find the Chinese people being oppressed and bullied by the white folk. Looked at as a stand alone entity it's not such a bad film. Still not a great one, though.

There's not much to get excited about in the story, and plenty to cringe about in the acting (too many people delivering corny English dialogue and hamming it up, though the Chinese speakers don't come across much better - this definitely isn't Jet at his best either). There's some good action though - some gunplay and some wire-enhanced kung fu. Xiong Xin-Xin gets more action scenes than Jet (and probably doubled Jet in his too), but it's no bad thing as he's probably the better martial artist and acrobat. In many ways he steals the film from Jet in fact, and Wong Fei Hung is almost relegated to a side character. Most of the fights pit XXX or Jet against clumsy cowboys and indians, where the speed and power of the Chinese martial arts overcomes the superior weaponry of the Westerners. There's some good choreography from Sammo Hung. The best fight and the best scene in the film comes when Xiong Xin-Xin acts out various fight scenes from the earlier OUATIC films in an attempt to trigger Wong Fei Hung's memory. Let's face it, there's nothing better than seeing two remarkable martial arts athletes going at each other

I've owned two versions of this film on DVD - actually make that three. First there was the Hong Kong disc from Chinastar, which featured a typical rushed non-anamorphic transfer, which wasn't too bad, but also had subtitles that were quite seriously out of sync with the dialogue, lagging by 10-20 seconds. That was bad!

So I replaced the disc with the UK "Special Edition" from MIA. This contains two versions of the film on the same disc. First is an anamorphic version, that is cropped down to 16:9 from about 2.35:1 and dubbed into English. It also features a hideous 5.1 remix. I wouldn't watch a dubbed version anyway, but the cropping really hurts the film - Sammo's cinematographer really uses the full frame, and far too much action is lost in the crop. Actually I think the image may have been zoom boxed, as it felt cramped on top and bottom too. Anamorphic or not, avoid this one.

Which leaves the other version on the MIA disc - a letterboxed transfer at the correct aspect ratio, featuring Cantonese 2.0 audio and burnt in theatrical subs. It's an ugly looking thing - faded, dirty and suffering from tons of edge enhancement that looks even worse zoomed up to fill a 16:9 tv. Might as well be a VHS, but at least it fits the basic requirements of correct aspect ratio, correct language and English subtitles that match the dialogue. If you have the film on VHS, don't bother "upgrading". Otherwise, bad as it is this is the version to get.