Once Upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung, 1997)

8tv-coming-soon-cs030-once-upon-a-time-in-china-and-americ-s01-107339238

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 movie. 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.

Totally abandoning any kind of logical chronology, Wong Fei-hung (with Jet Li returning in the role), 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 (where it takes three days to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (it takes two hours today). 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, 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 film 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.

Advertisements

Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992)

once-upon-a-time-in-china-02

“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong

“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung

“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun

Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar

I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself

In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.

Continue reading

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991)

china-jet-li-copy

Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.

Continue reading

Running Out of Karma: John Woo’s The Crossing

Here are reviews of the two separately released parts of The Crossing. We talked about John Woo’s career in general on They Shot Pictures a few months ago.

maxresdefault

The Crossing – reviewed August 13, 2015

The first part of John Woo’s latest epic (the second part was recently released in China to little fanfare, but isn’t available here yet) is a romantic war movie in the style of The Big Parade or Doctor Zhivago, with a half dozen characters caught up in the Chinese civil war following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. The most direct connection is probably Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli’s 1947 film The Spring River Flows East which follows the ups and downs of a family awash in the same history, and was also released separately in two parts.

Leaving the nautical disaster that’s led the project to be dubbed “John Woo’s Titanic” for the second half, this first part follows the three major stars and their satellite characters through the civil war: Zhang Ziyi as an illiterate nurse trying to get by while searching for the man she loves (a soldier), Takeshi Kaneshiro as a Taiwanese doctor who has lost the woman he loves (a Japanese girl), and Huang Xiaoming as a Nationalist general who falls in love with and marries a young woman before shipping her to safety in Taiwan (where she lives in Kaneshiro’s girlfriend’s old house). It’s lush and romantic (a quite pretty score by Taro Iwashiro, who also did the stirring and lovely music for Woo’s Red Cliff), with golden hues, wind blowing through grasslands, pointed freeze frames and slow motion (yes, and doves), balanced by the horrors of war: starving children, students and dancing girls beaten in the streets, freezing trenches and explosive heroism. Nobody mixes action and melodrama with more seriousness than John Woo.

One person’s old fashioned and sappy is another person’s classical and heartfelt. And I am nothing if not a sucker.

20150801190257

The Crossing II – reviewed December 2, 2015

Such a strange movie, less a continuation of the story of Part One than a partial remake of it (pointedly perhaps its title is “The Crossing II” and not “The Crossing Part II“), as the first half hour not only recapitulates what went before, but completely replays whole scenes with slightly different editing and a few extra scenes added in. The next hour or so continues the rhythm of the first film, intercutting between the various leads as they all slowly make their way to the doomed boat (a title card at the opening gives us all the details of the impending disaster, with some of this information to be repeated verbatim at the end of the film). The emphasis is on Takeshi Kaneshiro’s doctor, first in his friendship with Song Hye-kyo (the wife of Nationalist general Huang Xiaoming), then with his family (ostensibly his younger brother who wants to run off from Taiwan to Shanghai to become a prostitute, but as it plays the relationship is more with his mother and sister-in-law (his older brother’s widow), who is played by Woo’s daughter Angeles), and finally, on the boat, with Zhang Ziyi, the idealistic young woman willing to do anything up to and including prostitution in her quest to survive long enough to find the army man she loves (“When I believe someone, I believe him whole-heartedly. Shouldn’t it be that way?” she says, in a line that does much to summarize Woo’s entire career).

Recentering the film in this manner makes it less an ensemble piece about love in a time of war, as the first one is, than a film about the endurance of women in the face of tragedy. Perhaps this is the influence of Tsui Hark, brought in at the last minute to help assemble the final cut of this film. The whole thing feels like it was hastily assembled in response to the box office failure of the first film. I’m very curious how the second half was to play out in its initial conception, as I quite liked Part One, it had the sweep and loveliness of a great historical melodrama, like Woo’s version of the great 1947 Shanghai film The Spring River Flows East. The second part though would probably play better, or at least just as well, as a single film, in isolation from the first. The jumbling repetitions of the first film irreparably break the rhythm, we’re left wondering why we’re seeing these scenes again, and why the new scenes were deleted from the first film, rather than being caught up in the emotions on-screen.

For all its billing, this is not “John Woo’s Titanic“. In its loveliness, deep anxiety about the past and the horrors of history (one of the many fascinating things about it’s look at the Civil War is that both sides are pretty much equally terrible, while good people populate the ranks of both armies), breathtaking romanticism and flights of digital expressionism, this is nothing less (and nothing more) than John Woo’s War Horse.

Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark

Reviews:

The Butterfly Murders (Tsui, 79) – May 31, 2013
Shanghai Blues (Tsui, 84) – Aug 28, 2014
Working Class (Tsui, 85) – Dec 07, 2013
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui, 86) – Nov 22, 2013
A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 86) – Jun 26, 2015
A Better Tomorrow II (Woo, 87) – Nov 21, 2013

The Big Heat (To et al, 88) – Jan 09, 2015
The Killer (Woo, 89) – Aug 24, 2015
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui, 89) – Oct 21, 2014
Just Heroes (Woo & Ma, 89) – Aug 16, 2015
Swordsman and Swordsman 2
(Ching et al, 90 and Ching, 92) – Sep 26, 2012
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 91) – Jan 16, 2017
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui, 92) – Jan 17, 2017

New Dragon Gate Inn (Lee, 92) – Apr 24, 2014
Green Snake (Tsui, 93) – Oct 25, 2013
The Lovers (Tsui, 94) – Apr 04, 2014
The Blade (Tsui, 95) – Mar 19, 2014
Love in the Time of Twilight (Tsui, 95) – Apr 04, 2014
Zu Warriors (Tsui, 01) – May 30, 2013

Seven Swords (Tsui, 05) – Mar 11, 2014
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui, 11) – Oct 29, 2014
Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui, 13) – Feb 27, 2014
The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui, 14) – Jan 14, 2015
Sword Master (Yee, 16) – Dec 9, 2016
Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (Tsui, 17) – Feb 7, 2017

Podcasts:

Iron Monkey (Yuen, 93) – Jan 23, 2016

Capsules:

We’re Going to Eat You (Tsui, 80) – Jun 08, 2013
Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui, 80) – Jun 25, 2013
Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui, 80) – Jan 20, 2017
All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution (Tsui, 81) – Nov 27, 2013
Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui, 84) – Dec 04, 2013
The Banquet (Tsui et al, 91) – Dec 13, 2013

Twin Dragons (Tsui & Lam, 92) – Apr 14, 2015
The East is Red (Ching & Lee, 93) – Jun 22, 2015
Once Upon a Time in China III (Tsui, 93) – Jan 18, 2017
Burning Paradise in Hell (Lam, 94) – Nov 22, 2016
The Chinese Feast (Tsui, 95) – Jun 04, 2013
Black Mask (Lee, 96) – Mar 22, 2016
Shanghai Grand (Poon, 96) – Mar 20, 2016

Double Team (Tsui, 97) – Apr 04, 2014
Knock Off (Tsui, 98) – Apr 07, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui, 00) – Mar 25, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui, 00) – Sep 05, 2016
Triangle (Lam, Tsui & To, 07) – Mar 09, 2013
Missing (Tsui, 08) – Jan 25, 2017
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui, 2010) – Apr 24, 2014

List:

Tsui Hark Movies