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My Shao-lin Clementine

Once Upon a Time in China and America
A Carriage Built for Two: Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan brave the rigors of the frontier in Hong Kong director Samo Hung's 'Once Upon a Time in China and America.'

Go West, young martial artists, advises 'Once Upon a Time in China and America'

By Richard von Busack

WONG FEI-HONG (1847­1924) was the Wyatt Earp of China, according to Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins' Sex, Zen and a Bullet in the Head. The semi-legendary shao-lin martial-arts teacher has been the subject of more than 60 movies; the character is played by both Jackie Chan (Drunken Master II) and Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in China series.

Li repeats the role in Once Upon a Time in China and America, and among his first words is the declaration "Nothing makes me happier than saving a life." The appealing thing about Li is that you believe him when he says it. Li has old-time movie courtliness; his Wong never bows out of a fight, but he never picks one, either.

Wong and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) are riding in a stagecoach in America's old West, heading out to Fort Stockton to visit a regular character, the dentally challenged comic relief Dr. Sol (Jacky Cheung). On the way, they pick up a dying white man, pregnantly named Billy--though he doesn't turn out to be the Kid.

The characters suffer through a stagecoach accident worse than most car wrecks. Wong knocks his head on a rock, gets amnesia and is adopted by a group of Indians. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Yee waits for news in Fort Stockton's Chinatown, which is oppressed by racist townspeople.

Once Upon a Time in China and America is probably the first Western since Vietnam that isn't about the despoliation of the West or guilt over the genocide of the Native Americans, and it's fun for that reason alone. Director Samo Hung is canny in his borrowing of Sergio Leone­style close-ups. He zeroes in for a slow-speed shot of the muzzle of a beautiful, foaming horse; he homes in on the vermilion war paint around the eyes of a stalking Indian warrior, contrasting the feathers in his hair with a handsome shot of a pheasant padding through the autumn-colored grass.

It's also satisfying that the white guy is the sidekick this time. The actor who plays Billy has a surfer/Dutch-boy mop of almost fluorescent blond hair; he's as awkward as Keanu Reeves but much more appealing. Unfortunately, Hung's storytelling is often hasty. He leaves one intriguing character unexplained: a bad man who cruelly baits a wolf with his own blood just so he can kill it for sport.

This diverting movie has one deep moment that shows the difference between Chinese fatalism and American morbidity. An elderly Chinese laborer is on the scaffold, about to be lynched. He shows no terror of the gallows. Asked for last words, he sums up his life: "I was married, went to work. I was a slave outside, but I pretended to be an emperor at home."


Once Upon a Time in China and America (Unrated; 90 min.), directed by Samo Hung, written by Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan.

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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