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Continuous short breakdown on Asian Western films stylistic elements towards the definition of DimSum Westerns.

Hong Kong

As this subject is focused on Hong Kong I start with Johnnie To’s EXILED (2006) which is actually set in Macau.

This choice of location gives the film an interesting Mediterranean touch and flair, far away from the vibrating metropolis of Hong Kong. To, known for constantly applying Western elements to his own style, creates already in the opening scene a typical Leone-like suspense layout. With slow and elegiac camera tracks he moves along the narrow streets and within a small apartment above. The four main protagonists position themselves in front of the house where a scared woman with baby observes the scenery down below. All smoking cigars, no one talks. Now the scenery slowly escalates as a man pulls up the street in a small truck. Entering the house he is being followed by two men from the street, the other two remain in position at the doorstep. Still no dialog! The three men inside the apartment are getting nervous. Each is looking for a good position within the unfurnished room, a shootout is imminent. Next door, the woman is holding on to her baby, not taking cover but watching the scenery. On the street, a police car with the dump corrupt “sheriff” appears. Upstairs the expected wild shooting breaks loose and the two men on the street try to scare the “sheriff” off by demonstrating their shooting skills on an unarmed Red Bull can. This scene of course, as hilarious and typical it might appear for a Hong Kong action film, is a direct homage to Leone´s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) hat shooting scene between Eastwood and Van Cleef. This can-shooting scene becomes a regular running gag throughout EXILED, whenever the cop needs to be kept at bay. However, after all the shooting in the first ten minutes no casualties can be claimed, except a shot can and perforated stone pot. The indoor shoot out is visually quite spectacular solved by To but in the end it turns out all opponents and rivals are old friends, a youth gang from childhood days. Thus, the four dark shooters strip off their trench coats and help hauling up furniture into the empty apartment. Ultimately all having dinner like old pals, as if nothing ever happened, an almost heart-warming scenery.  Until this point we had barley dialog between the protagonists.

To undergoes within this first 15 minutes the transition from a classic Italian Western pattern to a classic Hong Kong Jiang-Hu movie. Even though those motives and elements are very strong throughout EXILED, the film does not drift into an awkward homosexual tone as most similar themed films tend to do. However, traditional 1960s Italian Western elements are still strong represented all over the film. The harmonica music played by one of the main protagonists on the ship, the “over-red” blood splatters, the gold transporter ambush on a rural road. Also, the hotel scenes, which recall the so memorable setting of King Hu´s classic DRAGON INN (1967), does not only display To is ranging within his own cinematic roots but also finding direct links between Hu´s classic swords play tales and the wild west colt tales of his Italian colleagues. Both genres do not seem that much apart from each other at the end of the 1960s when it comes to visual storytelling, interior choreography as well as atmospheric density.

Speaking of interiors, EXILED draws a very bleak picture of indoor settings. Most apartments are dirty, decaying, barely furnished and more than simple designed. One can often see behind walls, that are obvious thin wooden stage walls, usually only set into the room to give one protagonist some cover prior to shootouts. Hence, one could interpret those scarce wooden interiors as reminiscence to the shanty towns in Westerns. But one could also read it as symbolic embodiment of the hollow and superficial inner life of most characters. Finally, one might argue the interiors simply represent the absence of private belongings in life of the four main protagonists, except their black bags. They are lonely travelers, constantly on the move with no real home or origin. The latter one would mark, once more, one major element of Italian Western.

Extending his film THE MISSION (1999) to a broader Western approach To shows us the roots of his own cinematic style and even goes further deep into. The suspense build-up and subsequent shootout within the illegal clinic clearly are one of To´s most complex and most delicate choreographed action sequences. Even thought, EXILED is clearly a contemporary film it bears all ingredients and character motives of classic Italian Western films. Hence, it can without doubt be considered as a DimSum Western, simultaneously displaying the wide variety and potential of this genre, which not only orientates itself towards one particular style.

Finally, the overall impression of EXILED remains dull, unfortunately. It appears like a finger exercise for its director and creative team but does not stick out in particular from his Œuvre. The film is a solid work, as usual, but bears a wafer-thin story stretched to long 104 minutes with no real twist or unpredictable move. Ultimately, the focus lies too much on the group of four and their relationship amongst each other, which is a regular theme in Chinese films, but surprisingly all characters within this particular group, just remain two-dimensional.

JAPAN

Before beginning on Takashi Miike´s SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007) I have to admit the fact that I never was a big fan of Miike’s. Apparently his immense influence on contemporary Japanese filmmaking with all those new, up and coming directors trying to imitate and copy his style made me being widely absent from recent Nippon films and rather take refuge with all those 1950s Samurai classics , 60s Yakuza films and bold exploitation of the 70s. Hence, the WESTERN DJANDO did not had a good start with me. However, I was truly eager to see whether Miike could offer a new approach to the exploitive subgenre of Asian Westerns.

The SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO starts with an amazing Tarantino cameo opening sequence that is funny, refreshing and highly entertaining. Recalling the memories of an over-stylized stage play with the artificial set design, one might even briefly think back to Thailand´s great contribution to this genre, TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER (2000). But then people start talking, in awkward heavy Japanese accent English and things begin to spin out of control. The overall comic-like tone of the film does hold potential, the camera work is gorgeous and the color & light compositions marvelous but Miike´s way of storytelling makes it hard to follow –  yes, even hard to watch.  Everything is hasty, confusing and lost me after 10 minutes. Things start to get messy and the regular Japanese slapstick insert as well as over-the-top acting does make things even worse.

Thus, I rather concentrate on the visual elements than the story itself, if there ever was one at all. As mixture of Samurai and Western film one can find a whole hawker´s tray of direct references, quotations and own interpretations of famous Italian Westerns. Miike´s cinemascope compositions on the other hand follow widely the traditions of the Samurai classics, especially when it comes to interior arrangements of large groups of actors in a dialog situation.

Apart from that, there are some elements that just do not want to fit right in. All main actors are, typical for contemporary Asian mainstream films, young and good looking guys/girls who miss every character depth. Where are the strong Western-typical faces with deep scars or wrinkles? Faces like Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef told already entire stories just by entering the frame. Those faces lived a life of exploitation, violence, booze and to the core shaping traumatic experiences. Those Japanese lads just are hollow figures without any profile. No one is scary or even ambivalent, just too clean, glib and superficial. Miike traded the strongest visual point of Westerns against the favor and commercial market value of a bunch of squawking juvenile Japanese groupies. No one of those “hot” actors is able to portray an angry, deep inside disrupted hero who is on the brink to become a bad guy. Not even to speak of a bad, nasty hero who never was good in the first place.

Another point that seems to disturb the structure of the film is how Miike handles dramatic scenes in which the actual story is being told. He uses occasional flashbacks that are supposed to give the pseudo-story some depth but are just floating by as the river over which the small boy’s parents are being hanged. Those flashbacks are just getting squeezed into a bunch of spectacle outbursts of shooting action. Italian Westerns were building their stories around those flashbacks. This was what gave them literally flesh and blood to emerge from. Here, it is just a brief justification for explosions of violence during the respective following scene that should cover weak acting and low dramatic ability of its actors as well as some story holes. Now, one could argue the same exploitive cover-up of violence can be found at almost all Italian Westerns, which is probably true to a large extent. However, masters of the genre like Leone or Corbucci used right those scenes and sequences to shape their characters, giving them depth and inner disruption by not necessarily letting them play those feelings out but rather by becoming manifest within a complex universe of situations, locations, editing and overall atmosphere. The flashback story was what kept the film running by gradually revealing of motives and the subsequent hero´s destiny. Eventually, flashbacks in SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO appear simply awkward and disturbing for the general story flow. Thus, they do not serve the film but rather lead audience away.

“Yojimbo meets Django” one might self-title the film and indeed SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO is a stunning assimilation of both genres. It is worth watching and clearly shows how Asians can revive those old traditional ways of filmmaking, merging cultural differences by creating an entire new cinematic universe. Even though Miike does not make it easy for audiences to grasp his film it remains an entertaining ride through the past of the Western genre with a possible future light at the end.  However, the film remains a straight rip-off from real world cinema classics rather than an intelligent new interpretation. A director with a less distinct cinematic ego might have created a more lasting movie experience.

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My next analysis will move on to Korea and Thailand soon.  A nice Asian Western Round Up can be found at the Gutter.

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Yojimbo (1961) with a Fistful of Dollars (1964)

It is a cold season somewhere in the middle of the Japanese nowhere. We see the unemployed samurai Yojimbo walking through a bleak black and white landscape. He enters a ghost town, a scanty dog passes him carrying a chopped off hand in his mouth. This is no pleasant place to live nor is this the film.

Kurosawa deliberately sets his jidai-geki movie in a deep dark tone flanked by black humor, exposing a number of, for the time, drastic “splatter” effects. Blood spills out of bodies, arms get chopped off and people die like flies. Of course, due to the black and white character of the film blood is barely visible but shown for the first time within this genre. Leone on the other hand was far more conservative by displaying violence. People get shoot indeed, but the rather clean traditional way. The Italian Western just emerged at the beginning 1960s and was orientating itself towards the traditional US Western. Spaghettis should become far more explicit in the years to come.

One thing becomes evident immediately during Yojimbo’s opening sequence. Kurosawa’s cameraman Kazuo Miagawa, famous for his virtuous camera dolly track compositions, gives the film an enormous drive using tracking shots all the way through. First he uses several close-ups shots from slightly blow of Toshiro Mifune, tracking alongside the actor while he enters the town. Only in a view shots the main street of the town gets revealed as a whole. Leone never went that close during the opening shots. He rather exposed the great landscape surrounding the ghost town and the wide feeling of the dusty streets. He builds up tension step by step, establishing the place as remote and almost dead, the business of the undertaker as only way to make a living here. Kurosawa on the other hand immediately characterizes his town as heavy populated. We see a bunch of women at a window and Yojimbo gets surrounded by a large group of swordsmen as he passes along the street. Miagawa kicks off the thriving story with his dynamic camera work as he needs to introduce all the characters and their relations to each other as soon as possible in order to start with the actual story.

In general both films use the cinemascope format but handling the medium in different ways according to their own cinematic cultures. Miagawa uses the wide character of the format especially elaborated during dialog scenes with a large number of people, in groups of three or more. The alignment of protagonists within a certain space, apparently interior sets, is always based on the camera’s composition and the appearance of each protagonist within the dialog. Actors with more and important lines are taking more space within the composition, but do not necessarily need to be in the foreground. A panning and/or tracking camera within dialogs can elevate the dynamic of each conversation but is highly choreographed as protagonists walk in and out frames. Since Italian Westerns were not based on dialog scenes rather than stylized moments of confrontation the use of the format was more focused on establishing a single person within a huge environment, isolating him as character and also displaying the inner struggle of trusting human beings. Hence, landscape shots as well as extreme close-ups from the expressionless face were main focus. Special arrangements of protagonist groups are usually used as means to elevate certain suspense within one scene or confrontation.

Mifune’s Yojimbo argues in the middle of the film “This town is boiling” and Kurosawa indeed heats up the town in a symbolic way. While the tension between both clans starts to get out of hand houses are set on fire and people die in heaps as the rivaling families wiping out residents. Heavy dust clouds ripping through the streets just complete the picture of a boiling pot cooking over full of steam. Leone rather centers his symbolism around the tool of destruction, the gun. Various scenes where the protagonist showing off their shooting skills, one tries to impress the other, can be considered as substitutional duels, finally culminating into the “real” gun-down. However, both films have in common that special weaponry defines the villain. The more powerful weapon in Yojimbo is a gun but finally gets defeated by the traditional sword as the more superior rifle of Packo’s gets vanquished by a smart trick and the traditional pistol.

Kurosawa however, goes one step further in his symbolic arrangements as Leone does. Taking advantage of the Japanese architecture we see a great number of shots filmed through wooden windows shades. As these lattice windows appear like prison bars and most of the angles are taken from the POV of Yojimbo observing the daily routine and reactions of the several clan members, one could argue the town’s residents are living within their own prison. Incapable to leave town they fight for their ground, their clan and their identity. Yojimbo is like a prison guard pulling all the strings and finally cleaning up the city as his last words are: “Now it will be quiet in this town.”

Last Man Standing (1996) in comparison

Director Walter Hill and his DoP Lloyd Ahern are setting their story now within the context of US Prohibition era. The general storyline keeps unchanged. We find the lonely main protagonist, here played by Bruce Willis, traveling through the middle of nowhere looking for a fast buck to earn hitting the small shanty town Jericho ruled by two rivaling gangs. Hill’s Neo Gangster Western obviously navigates alongside its two prototypes but also find inspiration in classic American Film Noir, especially as he takes great use of a story telling voice over. Willis plays his character somewhere between a John MaClane and Bogart’s Rick Blaine; washed up, slightly lethargic and constantly drinking but still smart. Such a self dishonored figure would have been unthinkable within the strict conventions of Kurosawa’s samurai codex nor would Leone let his hero that stripped and distant emotionally. Probably a personal comment to US culture by Hill.

Most significant to its predecessor is clearly the visual style. Jericho is portrait as a place constantly being inside a sand storm. Dust and wind everywhere, isolating the town from the world. Sun can cut through only occasionally. Ahern’s color palette barely holds other tones than brown, orange or gray. Therefore it is quite comparable to the black and white compositions of Yojimbo, especially during its showdown since Last Man Standing simply appears like a tinted version.

But Hill sets his own course to the old story. Interior scenes are typically composed by his special sense of spatiality. The camera measures the space by small tracking shots along the staircases during scenes of tension and confrontation. A tool Hill already took great use of in Trespass (1992). Those compositions are constantly sliced through by partition walls and balustrades. Most significant Hill’s spectacular way of how people get shot to death. 9mm bullets from a ’45 colt can let a person fly through a window 10 meters right down onto the street. Here, he uses the Peckinpah editing mode of mixing the real time action of the shooter intercut with slow motion angles of the person shot.

However, one crucial difference can be stated in the final showdown. Hill’s shootout is quick, abrupt and surprisingly anti-stylized. Leone and Kurosawa were building up icons throughout their films and therefore having an epochal duel at the end, throwing in all finesse in terms of composition, framing and editing to build up suspense. They celebrated it as defining moment of their characters. Hill, however, makes it simple. It’s just a situation the characters have to sort out, a troublesome thing urged to get rid of.

Hill definitely feels home within the Western genre. Most of his films bear Western typical elements and motives as 48hrs (1982) or Red Heat (1986). As initiator of the Buddy Action Comedy he clearly transformed the Western into an urban environment set against a present context. However, he always stuck to the Western till today. From Long Riders (1980) where he refined Peckinpah’s revolutionary style of The Wild Bunch (1969) to the TV series Deadwood (2004) which seems just the subsequent advancement of Spaghetti Western “anti-values” and superelevation of a world in amoral .

There are two more candidates in need to be analysed since both deal with the same story as the three above: The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) with David Carradine as some sort of Conan variation and the most recent production from Japan Tsubaki Sanjûrô (2007). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get hold of both. As soon as I get them the comparison will be completed here.

Furthermore, the BBC web site holds also an analysis of all three films. The rather sober listing of different plot points does hold, however, some interesting background information:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1161271

Alex Cox is probably one of the most important scholars on Spaghetti Westerns. Since his master studies he dealt with the genre and contributed to a huge body of research. His feature film WALKER (1987) was already a hybrid of the Italian and American style mixed with elements of political satire. It was considered as “psychotronic” cinema though and today held as “cult film in search for an audience” (Jonathan Malcolm Lampley) as it flopped in theatres and was despised by critics.

[Criterion essay by Graham Fuller:

http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/558 ]

Cox’s writing 10,000 WAYS TO DIE (1978) is still the most comprehensive English language work on Spaghetti Western and can be downloaded free:

http://www.alexcox.com/freestuff/10000_WAYS_TO_DIE.pdf

A revised version is available since 2009 as printed book.

He also gave a nice inside on most of the less known but important films ranging from Corbucci to Damiani on the IFC documentary THE SPAGGHETTI WEST (2007). Unfortunately all YouTube clips have been erased just recently, probably due to the extend of violence shown during the film excerpts. Hoverer, readings on Cox can be found here:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5fcef40e-35dc-11de-a997-00144feabdc0.html

http://www.nerve.com/CS/blogs/screengrab/archive/2009/05/04/a-big-bowl-of-spaghetti-westerns-with-alex-cox.aspx