Most of my friends know I am basically a movie nerd. I would be watching movies that most people don't know even exist and telling them about that. Now what I realized is that globalization has weird impact onto the movie industry. While certain people have known much about what I'm going to talk about, this article is for those who would love to get deeper into the cultural side of cinema like me. So this article is not about those movies that I have enjoyed from those mish mash of culture explosions.
But before I get deeper into this, let me tell you people what kick started this whole cultural mix match thing.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Title: Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), 1961
Definitely one of my favourite samurai films. On the surface, you may think that this just another samurai film. It's set in Japan, what's so "global" about that? What's so special of this piece that I consider it a piece of globalization. Now let's look at it's source and how it has impacted Japanese cinema.
For starters, this movie is an adaptation of a novel called "Red Harvest", written by Dashiell Hammet. The stylistics of the movie was taken from a film noir (That's black in French for those who are not film nerds like me) called "The Glass Key." Now the stylistics and major plot points are very similar. In fact, the torture in scene in which the main character, Sanjuro (The character actually doesn't have a name, they just call him Sanjuro, which means Thirty-something man, acted by Toshiro Mifune) was copied, shot by shot.
The huge difference between this samurai film compared to other samurai films is that it has a very western film to this. The dusty roads, the whole idea of a lone hero (like the lone gunslinger) and the wind blowing in the wide shots of the film, was akin to a western film. This is probably due to the fact that Akira Kurosawa was a fan of John Ford westerns and his movie, Seven Samurai was remade into a Western called "The Magnificent Seven."
This movie became very influential in cinema as a whole where various films have derived themes and plots from. In Star Wars where Anakin Skywalker's hand was chopped off by Darth Vader, the scene was very similar to a scene where Sanjuro fights 3 swordsman who he mocked them for being cute. Both scenes having shots of an arm falling off due to a sword fight. Not only that, Akira Kurosawa was a huge influence in George Lucas's Star Wars franchise. From the whole idea of a Jedi to George Lucas desire of having Mifune to become Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1st place. This movie has spawned many remakes from this basic plot, which brings to the 2nd movie in the instigator of movie globalization.
Director: Sergio Leonne
Title: A Fistful Of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari), 1964
One of the most influential westerns to ever come out in the history of cinema. This movie was basically a remake of the movie Yojimbo (above) in a western setting. Now here where it gets interesting.
How many of you actually realized that the cinematography for a samurai film is basically the same as a western movie? Well, at least most of them. The close ups, the duels, the lone hero without the name and other themes are all similar because of this remake. While the Seven Samurai was remade into the Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo turned into A Fistful of Dollars. This cross cultural exchange brought Asian styled film making to the west, taking back the Asians borrowed from the West. The tribute comes full circle. The katannas of the East gets replaced by guns and holsters from the Wild West and the lone Japanese flute to Enka tunes, gets replaces by the whistles of a lone cowboy and his guitar. Ennio Morricone, a composer of these for the music of this westerns, despite having a Western feel to his music, fits nicely into the settings of Samurai films. So does the tune of Samurai films fits right in nicely with Western films.
Now here's something that the average movie goer might not know, despite this movie is a western set in at the border of Texas and Mexico, the movie was a Spanish-Italian production. Yes, you read that right, it was a Spanish-Italian production. The movie despite having an American feel was very Italian. The director of the movie was an Italian and he films his movies in Spain. This sparks out the very genre we call "Spaghetti Westerns." Clint Eastwood, when he signed his contract for Rawhide (a cowboy series my father normally tell about when I was kid). This movie then spawned various spaghetti westerns, some awesome, turning classics, some were just plain dull and "A Fistful of Dollars" is not one of them.
This movie is the 1st of the "Dollar Trilogy." The following ones were "A Few Dollars More" and "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." The 3rd in the series then became very influential in many modern directors nowadays like Robert Rodriguez (Who then did the El Mariachi Trilogy) and Quentin Tarantino. Aside from this trilogy, other notable Spaghetti Westerns are the Django series, Death Rides A Horse, Once Upon A Time in The West and A Fistful of Dynamite (In America it was known as Duck, You Sucker!).
PS/ The Spaghetti Western genre itself holds a nostalgic feeling to me because my father used to tell me stories about them when I was a kid. I never actually saw them until I grow up but I knew the basic stories about Django and The Dollars Trilogy. In fact, my Dad named me after Terence Hill, who acted in one of the Django sequels: "Django, Prepare a Coffin!"
Now let's move on the results of this cross cultural exchange:
There are those that are pretty obvious when it comes to cultural exchange. Stuff like Star Wars, obviously took Sergio Leone's cowboy feel when it came to Han Solo's style, the Jedis from Samurais, mainly inspired by Akira Kurosawa and dozens of other references. In fact, the Force itself was inspired by Shaolin Kung Fu's Qi energy. This mish mash of ideas brought forth a new generation of creativity. Now let's dissect the lesser known ones (at least within the Malaysian Mainstream Audience)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Title: Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2 (Kiru Biru), 2004
Quentin Tarantino was the king of mash ups and tributes. In fact, his previous movies before this, Pulp Fiction and even Reservoir Dogs, contains a plethora of pop culture references. It seems like his love for entertainment doesn't stop at Buddy Holly waiters and Chuck Berry. For this movie, Quentin Tarantino has went through his favourite VHS rentals and stumbled upon Lady Snowblood, an influential chambara (swordfight) film. Now, for those who have seen the ultra violent ear splicing scene from Reservoir Dogs, did you know that QT actually got inspired from a scene from Sergio Corbucci's Django? Now that you know, let me tell you a bit about this movie.
Kill Bill is a mix match of spaghetti western themes with samurai/yakuza themes with a dish dash of old kung fu/wuxia movies. The story tells of a lady who survived a massacre on her wedding day by a group of assasins alongside her ex-boyfriends. So she embarks on her revenge, at Japan, where she meets the 1st of the assasins where the fight scene was described best by a critic as "a cocktail party in an abbatoir." While the words were meant to be an insult, for a samurai movie, it is more or less like a compliment. Originally rated NC-17 for violence, certain scenes were cut to get an R-rating. There some scenes that Taratino wished not to cut down so he gave the scene a black and white treatment. Now this may seem like an act of censorship but this also plays a homage to old kung fu and samurai films. Yojimbo was black and white and a lot of Bruce Lee's movies were shown in shades of grey because of violence. The tribute has come into full circle.
The best demonstration of the mix of spaghetti westerns and samurai film is during the climatic fight between O-ren Ishii(Lucy Liu) and The Bride (Uma Thurman). The close ups to the faces is reminicense of Sergio Leonne's close ups in his cowboy movies. The snow setting in the background adds to the drama, reminding us the final showdown in Lady Snowblood. The music starts off with Santa Esmeralda's rendition of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood witha mix of spanish guitars, setting off a western feel. The duel then ends with the theme to Lady Snowblood, Flowers of Carnage. This duel alone shows the circle of globalization in movies where cowboys and samurais live side by side. While on paper, this concept seemed ridiculous but it intertwines nicely and smartly done. The next volume then proceeds with a dash of kung fu, and a touch of Wu Tang clan esque hip hop, similar to the Kung Faux we see on MTV a few years back. I don't know about you but I did see a lot of those shows when I was a teenager. KUNG FAUX!
Genre: Heroic Bloodsheds aka Gun Fu
Popularized by: John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Robert Rodriguez, Luc Besson
Notable Films: A Better Tomorrow, Hardboiled, Desperado, Once Upon A Time in Mexico
In the 80s, director John Woo wanted to create films crime films that involve firearms but the Hong Kong market was not into such things. His penchant for crime noir films and spaghetti westerns seemed to be a dead end. There were only 2 different genres that seemed to score in the Hong Kong movie industry: Comedy and Kung Fu. People generally thought that gun play was boring and people preferred the acrobatics of Kung Fu at it was energetic. That didn't stop the man. He went on to proof that gun play can be fun and crazy. With the help of his crazy stuntmen and wacky nutjob, the young Chow Yun Fatt they created the what then became known as "Gun Fu," a portmanteau of Guns and Kung Fu. While it's safe to conclude that the high flying, guns reloading the air, shooting guns while falling 2 storey down, was heavily inspired by Kung Fu acrobatics, the origins came from the west. Gunslingers in Spaghetti Westerns used to do crazy gunslinging action, rotating their revolvers around their fingers, throwing guns left and right or even reloading in the most awkward situations. Combine this with Sergio Leone styled close ups and his trademark Mexican Stand Off, you have the basic roots of gun play. Take them all, up the violence more, make the camera editing flashier, change the Mexican Stand Off into the now famous Chinese Stand Off and up the acrobatics to Kung Fu level, then you get your Gun Fu. Some people call it ballet with bullets due to it's acrobatic nature. Below is probably from the best gun fu fights on screen from the movie A Better Tomorrow II.
Notice how they combine the cowboy/Clint Eastwood styled swagger. John Woo's love for western gangster film styled clothing is also prevalent here which would only to become re popularized in the 90s. Chow Yun Fat's long coat, inspired by noir films in 40s, is then brought back to the spotlight in Hollywood in later films in the 90s and early 2000s. Before it was brought to Hollywood and became saturated, French director, Luc Besson followed the style closely in films like Leon The Professional, and Mexican-American director brought it into films like Desperado, showing bits of it to Western audiences. These films, despite being not so well known, became the basis of modern Hollywood action film making. John Woo's styles then gets copied by many other films like Mission Impossible, The Matrix and then possibly every other action film after this. Before this period you've got the man with the firepower like the Garbenator in Commando which then transcended into a period where reloading in the air becomes a must and turns into a cliche. The template all started here. I hope more people would actually go deeper into this film history to see where it all started and how did there staples grow. If it wasn't for Akira Kurosawa, following the steps of Western directors like John Ford, we wouldn't have half of today's action movie staples.