When Shanghai-based expat Jakob Montrasio first told me he was directing a spaghetti western set in his adopted city, I’m sure I blinked uncomprehendingly. The movie, Shangdown: The Way of the Spur is an east-meets-west kung fu cowboy mashup.
This Bruce with boots (or Clint with a kick) premise for a film seemed strange and intriguing, so I decided to probe a bit further into what the movie was all about. My interview with Jakob is below. But first, how about a more official synopsis (and a trailer):
Guerino, a cowboy from Italy, travels to Shanghai in search of his sister Elisa, who was working as a model in China but mysteriously vanished. In Shanghai, Guerino finds an unlikely ally in Jieikai, a local Chinese, whose girlfriend also mysteriously disappeared while working in the same modeling agency. During their search to uncover the truth, they are dragged into a dark world of criminality, corruption and human smuggling affairs. When things take a bad turn and innocent people start getting killed left and right, Guerino takes the matter into his own hands in order to save his sister before it’s too late… Driven by his thirst for vengeance and his desire for justice, he vows to take down every single link to this chain of smuggling affair following his one and only rule: kick first, ask questions later. . .
From the interview:
LLW: What was your interest in melding the Spaghetti Western-Kung Fu Action genres? Do you think there are similarities between the two styles?
JM: The Spaghetti Western and the Martial Arts Eastern are, from a plot point of view, actually quite similar. Usually they have a lead actor who ends up fighting someone much bigger than him, out of personal conflict or due to a need for help — or simply for money. There are, of course, differences in the sets, the actual action and some more things. For example, Spaghetti Westerns from Leone have the famous stare-downs, because the actual shooting is quite quick – one shot and the enemy is down; whereas martial arts are exciting through the moves and stunts. We combine those two and mash them up.
The last mashup in this style that I’ve seen was the Sukiyaki Western Django, but there they used guns and shot and shot and shot … I didn’t like that very much. I think using martial arts in a Western that’s shot in the East is much more exciting.
LLW: It’s interesting to me that Leone’s Dollars Trilogy kicked off with a remake of the Japanese filmYojimbo. These films all seem to mix up Asian and European directors, actors and locations; and use principally a North American “Western” concept of cowboys and gunslingers — does this say something about the universality of these themes and how they are accepted and understood across cultures? How do you think that plays out in Shangdown?
JM: I think the typical David versus Goliath concept appeals to the audience, and Akira Kurosawa’s films are pretty much quoted in every western, whether on purpose or not. I wonder where he got his inspiration from. It doesn’t matter where you are, what culture you’re in, if you see someone fighting or tricking out someone bigger than himself, it’s exciting.
My personal favorite Kurosawa film is The Seven Samurai, which was also remade into the Western The Magnificent Seven, and the topic of it is simply honor. The honorable samurai take on a huge enemy knowing that they wont make it, but try anyway, to help the poor village people. It’s fun to see that! Tragic in the end, but fun! John Woo’s Hong Kong films have the very same topic, but he transfered it into the cops of the southern metropolis. In a way, he’s referencing The Seven Samurai at the end ofHard Boiled, when Chow Yun-Fat saves the baby from the exploding hospital.
Also, 2010 and 2011, with stuff like Cowboys & Aliens from Iron Man director Jon Favreau, are years of the cowboy comeback. Even videogames sell cowboys well; look at Red Dead Redemption, pretty much the best game of the year. Cowboys are really “in” again and martial arts will always be.
I don’t think Jakob Montrasio really understands spaghetti westerns very well. He says that they are about”fighting or tricking out someone bigger than [the hero]”. There is usually a bit more going on than that, I think. The heroes not only meet their equals, but they are knocked down and humbled a bit (think of all the beatings of the hero in almost every spaghetti western). But that is okay. Shangdown – Way of the Spur looks like it might be fun, though the images of an American in a black duster and cowboy hat in Shanghai are a little out-of-place. This movie might be worth checking out, though. There has been a resurgence of the Spaghetti-inspired western in straight-to-streaming-video b-movies over the past few years. Some have been decent.