Out of all the films that begin with Once Upon a Time in (there are far more than you can foresee than fathom), the worst one ends in …China and America. It had the potential to be the best East/West crossover film of all time. With more money and in the right hands such as Oliver Stone (who is a Hong Kong cinema fan), it could’ve been a classic that is respected among film critics. The production values are, at best, average. The inclusion of Kung Fu cowboys muddles the historical accuracy. Also, the ethnic authenticity is lacking due to an absence of Native Americans.
Due credit has to be given to Jackie Chan because he had the story as early as 1993, when it was going to be called Chinese, Cowboys and Indians. He was disappointed with Tsui stealing his concept that he remade it as a modern movie titled Who Am I? before agreeing to do a Hollywood adaptation titled Shanghai Noon. Sammo reveals how it all began for him in the most unlikely of places:
“I went to Italy to meet with Tsui. He showed me an outline which consisted of two pages. I stayed there for about 10 days and made up the story. About a month later, I went to Texas to shoot it. In Hong Kong, one of the things that’s very good is we’re still writing the script.”
On the subject of said authenticity, Cho Wing (one of the fight supervisors) claimed that the biggest challenge was watching several video tapes to learn how to correctly choreograph the Indians. Cho’s mouth had a series of freshly-knitted fourteen stitches that marked an injury which resulted from a water hose. Mars, a former cohort of Jackie, worked as a fight choreographer as well as a stuntman. Mars had to climb up a ten foot ladder, jump onto a trampoline, turn during a flip and land with his back on an oak table. He was nearly unconscious when he was carried off the set. He returned two hours later and did the stunt again. He landed so hard that a nurse intervened by entering the shot.
Jet Li’s English teacher was a young Scottish man named Jason Leppo (who is reportedly a very good guitarist). Rosamund Kwan’s English, on the other hand, is impeccable (which is why it’s sad that she didn’t get to do much in the way of English language cinema). However, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking Mandarin. On one occasion, she had to repeat a line of Mandarin dialogue for more than forty times to get it right. She was looking at the scripts of three other movies while working on the movie, so she wasn’t focused enough. On the contrary, Hung Yan-Yan’s English is just as good as his Cantonese and Mandarin to the extent of being as a fight arranger on Simon Sez and The Musketeer.
Instead of having a teacher, he learned from reading books. Hung told Clyde that he had appeared in two scenes in Jet’s Black Mask for six days. He didn’t like working with Jean-Claude Van Damme on what was retitled as Double Team (initially known as The Colony). JCVD’s cocaine-fuelled pretension prevented any full-on martial arts action from taking place (despite the stunt team assuring him that he could look better than Jackie). This is ironic when taking into account that Jean-Claude did full throttle martial arts action in the original version of his next movie with Sammo Hung and Hark (Knock Off). It’s ironic because he was charging head first into cocaine.
Back to Once Upon a Time in China and America, Hung was so charming that he was the most liked person on the set. Clyde Gentry recalls watching Tsui Hark’s The Blade alongside Sammo and Hung (who played the villain). Tsui was one of the producers of this Once Upon a Time in. One of the most difficult tasks facing the production was the absence of Chinese people to work as extras in the film. Instead of getting H.K. extras, they had cast Chinese from different parts of Texas. The movie was shot in Brackettville due to the location of Alamo Village (where John Wayne’s The Alamo had been shot). Weirdly enough, the film was shot almost entirely in Texas despite the fact that it’s supposed to take place in San Francisco. Why not just have it take place in Texas?
To have the confidence to make the movie, Sammo (who would eventually star in a hit U.S. cop show) had the following movies as reference points – Once Upon a Time in the West and For a Few Dollars More. Despite wanting to assimilate the American culture, Sammo couldn’t resist humming the Wong Fei-Hung theme song in between some takes. On the subject of in between takes, Jet was seen going to his trailer so that he could smoke. Despite his shy nature, he’s not reluctant to have his photograph taken with fans. An anonymous crew member had this to say:
“The New crew wanted a New York movie, whereas the Los Angeles crew wanted a Los Angeles movie. Texas is relatively new into film, so we just wanted to help make their movie – their way.”
According to Sammo, Yuen Biao would’ve reprised the role which Max Mok took over from. The only reason why he didn’t was because he was too busy working on Hero – the Corey Yuen movie which took one year to get made in Beijing, Tianjin and other locations. Unlike Sammo, Biao only directed one movie (A Kid from Tibet). This is what Biao had to say about it:
“The work of a director is very tiring. There’s a lot of pressure – mentally as much as physically. It was too much, and I had enough. In the future, I may try it again if the circumstances are right. Director Hung is very skillful in turning an ordinary story or idea into an interesting and energetic film. He has a very active mind and can come up with quick ideas.”
Lau Kar-Wing (Liu Chia-Liang’s brother) has been credited as the co-director but was just a second unit director. Tsui served as an uncredited co-director (for six days of filming). Before Once Upon a Time in China and America was completed, Hung left for Mainland China to work on Till Death Do Us Part. Despite being the producer, Hark only made it to the set for eight days because he was too busy remaking The Colony with Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke.
What Once Upon a Time in China and America has in common with Wheels on Meals (Sammo’s 1984 classic) is that an American felt the need to interrupt a shot upon seeing someone get injured. In Wheels on Meals, it was Keith Vitali (who accidentally knocked out Sammo after kicking through his spear). On any H.K. production, no-one is allowed to interrupt a shot other than the police (it’s quite common for people to film without getting permits).
Sammo’s anger, in general, could be heard from all sides of the set of his first and last opportunity at directing Jet. No matter how hot-headed that he can get, each shooting day ends with him using gestures to tell comic anecdotes so that he can calm the depleted crew. Somehow, a production assistant managed to get in the way of a complex shot involving a bunch of cowboys and Indians on horseback. Sammo’s clamour got the best of him. A night of karaoke calmed everyone.
The joke is that it’s a farewell movie which fared well at the box office. Unlike a top-tier Hollywood production (where a script change has to go through a series of meetings whose red tapes are akin to crime scene tape), the script didn’t even have an end right up to the last few weeks of shooting. This is a surprise given the usually professional nature of a Hark production. Sharon Hui, the main screenwriter, waited idly by watching every moment of the first unit as she wrote down new dialogue.
Considering its ambition to break the West, it is something of a relative failure when compared to Dr. Wai in the Scripture of No Words. This other Jet movie could have been a hit for him in America. Also, Rosamund looks more majestic in that movie.
As a footnote, there is a H.K. movie titled Once Upon a Time in 2040.