From its breakout success, A Fistful of Dollars -- illicitly "inspired" by Kurosawa’s Yojimbo -- the spaghetti western has always owed a debt to the east. Though the genre instantly evokes a milieu and an epoch, so potent was the Italian reconstruction that its memorable iconography has frequently migrated to the opposite edge of the map. From Thailand’s Tears of the Black Tiger to provocateur Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, the poncho, sixgun and cheroot combo has pushed on to farther frontiers.
One filmmaker looking to serve up a similarly exotic brand of cine-cuisine is Marko Sparmberg, whose new web series Squattertown promises to meld these influences. Billed as a “dim sum western”, the project fuses the action aesthetics of Hong Kong cinema with the fetishistic close-ups and narrative flamboyance of Sergio Leone. Turning to websites for crowdsource funding, Sparmberg’s bold indie venture has avoided the pitfalls of development hell, allowing the indie auteur to realize his vision with global support. Given the multi-cultural hot pot he’s simmering, this seems more than apt.
Using Hong Kong’s urban desert as his backdrop, Sparmberg’s is a dystopic tale of high and low. Inspired by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham’s book Portraits from Above
, about Hong Kong’s rooftop squatters, the filmmaker envisions a polarized city of rich ground dwellers, with the underclass suspended in vertical ghettos. “I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push people out by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” the director commented. Bleached, bone-white brickwork in Sparmberg’s pilot short, Due Parole
, Tre Bugie
strangely recalls another characteristic western motif -- the impoverished, eerie Mexican settlements stalked by Clint Eastwood and his bounty-hunting brethren in For A Few Dollars More
Playing cat-and-mouse to shoot guerrilla style on some of the city’s rooftops, the director’s pulp parable reframes its inspiration with abrasive visuals. “It had to be as raw and natural-looking as possible,” said the film’s Macau-born cinematographer, Diogo Martins. This contrasts to a typical western where “everything is perfect." Shooting with covert, hit-and-run technique meant that the languid compositions and meticulous widescreen tableaux of Leone were frequently sacrificed for something far more immediate and adaptable. “It’s a bit like a documentary, where the skies are often blown out and everything is always in focus,” explains Martins. Flitting powerfully between reverse close-ups and dynamic wide shots, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s tense, soaring operatics, Sparmberg’s impressive grasp of technique reveals a facility for homage, but will the new series rise above? Find out by checking out the first installment, which is coming to an Internet near you this June.
Despite his grandiloquent rhetoric, it’s probably unlikely that the filmmaker’s effort counts as the inauguration of a new genre. Perhaps a new subgenre, or a fresh accent -- but when it comes to the Chinese spaghetti, the Italians got there first, in the early seventies. Cashing in on the popularity of Kung Fu movies, and the twilight of the spaghetti film, producers concocted at least three movies that mixed up gun crazy cowboys with chopsocky heroics. 1973’s Shanghai Joe
, and 1974’s The Stranger and the Gunfighter
(starring the awesome Lee Van Cleef, and co-produced by Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brothers) featured lethally gifted Chinese protagonists way out west. Contemporary American efforts such as the TV series Kung Fu
and the film Red Sun
(featuring Toshiro Mifune as a stateside Samurai) indicated the popularity of this brief trend.
Showcasing acrobatic martial arts choreography against a backdrop of saddle-worn tropes, it’s arguable that these efforts are a more inventive fusion, as genres blend and battle in front of the camera. Sparmberg is certainly proficient, but ritualistically enacting a series of narrative clichés against an exotic backdrop is hardly novel. What may redeem his project is its relevant moral schematic -- suggesting that, though he’s yet to find his own dialect, the filmmaker has something relevant to say.