Once Upon a Time in China and America
(Wong Fei-hung chi saiwik hung si) (1997)
Directed by Sammo Hung

Artistic Value: * ½
Entertainment Value: * * ½

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While not so bad that it is unwatchable, Sammo Hung's Once Upon a Time in China and America is a dull and forgettable film.

Having arrived in the United States with one of his pupils and his Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), martial artist and physician Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) is attacked by Indians, loses his memory, and, having regained it, helps the Chinese community in a Wild West town fight against a villain who wants to frame them for a bank robbery that was committed by his own men and at his command.

There is very little in Once Upon a Time in China and America for which the film can be recommended. The acting is often absolutely dreadful; the characters are ridiculously exaggerated, and even the action sequences are uninspired.

While Rosamund Kwan and Jet Li are competent in their portrayals of Aunt Yee and Wong Fei-Hung, they are virtually the only actors in the film whose performances are not utterly laughable. The movie's villains are especially ludicrous. The leader of the bandits hired to rob the bank, for example, is, very possibly, the most completely overdone and truly absurd fiend I have encountered in any film. He is such an extreme caricature that, instead of frightening the viewer, he is far more likely to make him laugh.

Even the action sequences included in the film at surprisingly infrequent intervals are uninspired. While they are competently performed, they are never particularly exciting. Given that the movie's story exists only to provide excuses for these fight scenes, their rarity and dullness greatly detract from the film's ability to entertain the viewer.

The movie's many failings are, however, actually its deliverance. Its ridiculous characters, its horribly inept depictions of American Indians and Western gunfighters, and its wildly overdone melodrama can be genuinely entertaining. If the viewer is able to engage with a film because it is poorly made, it is quite likely that he will enjoy watching Once Upon a Time in China and America.

Review by Keith Allen

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