Out of all the films that begin with Once Upon a Time in (there are far more than you can 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 due to the U.S.$ 2.5 million budget. 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 1980 (according to the December `95 issue of Impact), when it was going to be called Chinese, Cowboys and Indians. In the May `91 issue of Martial Arts Illustrated, Vincent Lyn claimed that Jackie was so impressed with his performance in Operation Condor that Jackie wanted him for his Western (which was originally intended to begin filming in the fall of that year).
Jackie was so disappointed with Tsui Hark stealing his concept in 1996 that he remade it as a modern movie titled Who Am I? before agreeing to do a Hollywood adaptation titled Shanghai Noon (which contains a jail break-out scene inspired by a Jet Li movie titled Born to Defend). Sammo Hung reveals how it all began for him in the most unlikely of places (during the making of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie titled Double Team):
“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.”
The Texas shoot lasted for five months. Back to the subject of 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’s English teacher was a young Scottish man named Jason Leppo (who is a very good guitarist). The English of Rosamund Kwan, on the other hand, is impeccable (it’s sad that she didn’t get to do much in the way of English language cinema). 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. The English of Hung Yan-Yan (whose Mandarin name is Xiong Xin-Xin) is just as good as his Cantonese and Mandarin to the extent of being a fight arranger on Simon Sez and The Musketeer. Instead of having a teacher, he learned from reading books.
In an issue of Hong Kong Film Connection, Yan-Yan told Clyde Gentry that he had appeared in two scenes of Jet’s Black Mask for six days. He didn’t like working with JCVD on what was retitled Double Team (first known as The Colony as a reference to The Prisoner). JCVD’s cocaine-fuelled pretension pretty much prevented any full-on martial arts action from taking place (despite the stunt team assuring him that he could look better than Chan the man). This is ironic when taking into account that Van Damme did full throttle fighting in the original version of his next movie with Sammo and Hark – Knock Off. It’s ironic because he was charging head first into cocaine. Given how Jeff Wolfe was in both Knock Off and Once Upon a Time in China and America, I shall digress by talking about the former.
The fight scene between JCVD and Mike Miller was much more longer. It was intricate and hardcore, with both taking some major knocks during the shooting. It was not a kick fest, which was a pity for Mike being a TKD guy, but it was a very cool scene that was the lead-in to Jeff’s scene with Jean-Claude, where Jeff got to let loose with his kicks to full effect. The frustrating thing is that clips from the shooting of these fight scenes were used in a “Making of” that screened once on H.K. TV before its H.K. cinema release. Kim Maree Penn (who plays one of the C.I.A. agents) was also scheduled to loosen her legs, but drastic changes to the shooting script meant that she never got to be the next Cynthia Rothrock. Back to Once Upon a Time in China and America, Yan-Yan was so charming that he was the most liked person on the set.
Clyde recalls watching Hark’s The Blade alongside Sammo and Hung (who played the villain). Hark was the sole producer of this Once Upon a Time in, unlike the other sequels which had Ng See-Yuen wanting to cash in on the first film. This should be a sign that even he knew that it would be a bad idea to attach his name to it, since he still wanted to be a major player in the U.S. film scene like how Raymond Chow gained success with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. 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? It was shot in synch sound with the breakdown of 70% Chinese to 30% English. Dubbing was still required. As to why the movie didn’t get a U.S. theatrical release, it was precisely because of the voice acting. The production hired a voice coach to ensure the quasi-Indians had a real Native American dialect. The lessons were put to an end when the actor who played the Chief couldn’t get it right. The official story behind the lack of U.S. cinema distribution was chalked up to the Texas Film Commission banning the film because of a half million dollar bill left by China Star Entertainment.
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 – For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West. Despite wanting to assimilate the American culture, Sammo couldn’t resist humming the Wong Fei-Hung theme song in between some takes. Speaking of, 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 York 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. We were tougher because we could handle the long hours, cold weather and the overall tension.”
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 (i.e. Lau Kar-Leung’s bro) has been credited as the co-director but was just a second unit director. It was quite gracious of him to return to the series despite being partially replaced in the first film by Yuen Cheung-Yan (i.e. Yuen Woo-Ping’s bro). The man also known as Liu Chia-Yung (the Mandarin name of his bro was Liu Chia-Liang) was doing it for the benefit of Sammo than Hark, who served as an uncredited co-director (for six days of filming). There is a Chinese proverb which states that two tigers can not rule the same mountain. Hung’s influence on Mr. Vampire is similar to Hark’s influence on A Chinese Ghost Story (i.e. producers who take over as directors). Richard Ng (who was in this Western) claimed that Sammo would take over as director of the Pom Pom movie series (after arriving on the set). Despite being the producer, Hark only made it to the set for eight days because he was too busy remaking The Prisoner with Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke.
What this Western has in common with Wheels on Meals (a 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 be, each shooting day ended with him using gestures to tell comic anecdotes so that he could 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.
In 1996, he decided that his last movie as a martial arts comedy actor would be How to Meet the Lucky Stars. What isn’t known is that the money went to Lo Wei’s widow. As for why Sammo doesn’t get much screen-time in that – he was too busy directing Chan in Mr. Nice Guy (their worst collaboration which was made before Wolfe’s Western but released at the same time during Chinese new year). This is what Sammo said in 1996: “Everybody just wants me to be a dummy who fights funny. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. Every movie is the same. I got tired.”
Sammo had this to say about Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (a Hark movie):
“I had 2 characters in the movie but I only gave them 2 days before I left the country to work on Jackie’s Project A. My favourite character was the soldier because he’s like me. I didn’t like the old man with the beard. I just had to stand there on the set and the beard dropped off all the time. It happened so much that I got increasingly angry. I decided that if it dropped again then I’d go home. When I went to the cinema to see the movie, everything was different. Tsui changes everything.”
The joke is that this Kung Fu Western is a farewell movie which fared well at the box office. It was the final time that Jet played the folk hero, and it was Sammo’s final H.K. film as a director. 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. Before the Western was completed, Yan-Yan left for Mainland China to work on Till Death Do Us Part.
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. Even though Once Upon a Time in China and America is miles far from being his best movie, Sammo proved to be a genius when he compensated for the lack of a crane by hooking up a cameraman to a wire (for a scene where the population flees the gallows). However, the U.S. crew thought Sammo’s method was barbaric until he told them how to create the right amount of leverage on the wire to keep the cameraman from coming down too fast and hurting people in the process. It makes me wonder what Tony Ching would’ve done.