Asian filmmakers revisit classic Westerns

Asian filmmakers revisit classic Westerns
BUSAN, South Korea - Two major Asian adaptations of classic Westerns have hit screens at the Busan International Film Festival, in a revival of a genre that drew some of its early inspiration from the cinema of the East.

Japanese-Korean director Lee Sang-Il's "Unforgiven" is a remake of the 1992 Clint Eastwood classic of the same name, starring the Oscar-nominated Ken Watanabe.

"Once Upon a Time In Vietnam", directed by Vietnamese-American director Dustin Nguyen takes its inspiration from Sergio Leone's sprawling Spaghetti Western epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" from 1968.

Both films, which have been released in their domestic markets, played to packed cinemas this week at Busan. Lee said he believed it was the timeless nature and raw humanity explored in Westerns that continued to attract audiences.

"Every filmmaker loves them too," Lee said.

"They confront certain issues, the goodness and badness of people and that's what attracted me to this film."

Watanabe, who was Oscar-nominated for his role in "The Last Samurai" (2003), takes on the role of the ageing gun for hire played by Eastwood in the original. Director Lee has shifted the action from the Wild West to Hokkaido at the start of the Meiji period in Japan.

"It was the same time as Hollywood Westerns are set, around the late 1800s," said the director. "They were times of great change in both countries."

Lee said he had been inspired by the work of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose films such as "Yojimbo" (1961) had helped provide the source material for many Hollywood Westerns.

"That film was a huge influence on me, as was the way Kurosawa blended action with epic drama," said Lee.

"Yojimbo" was a key inspiration behind Leone's 1964 "A Fistful of Dollars" - to the extent that the Italian director and his production company were eventually sued by Kurosawa's - and starred Eastwood in the main role billed as "Man with No Name".

Watanabe revealed that Eastwood had voiced his support for the "Unforgiven" project when he first heard about the remake, and had sent a letter of praise for the production once he had seen it for himself.

"He said he liked what we had done," said the actor. "He said we had captured the mood he had set in the original. It is a Western but with Japanese style."

'A sense of longing'

Actor-turned-director Nguyen grew up in the United States before moving back to Vietnam five years ago to start a production company. When it came to directing his first film there, he said he immediately turned to Leone.

"The Spaghetti Westerns had a big influence on me," he said. "So I had just been waiting for an opportunity to do something like that. It's nothing new but it is new for Vietnam."

The director echoed Watanabe in saying that the Western genre was primarily concerned with the issue of what it means to be a "real" man.

"I wanted to explore that, but I didn't want to make a drama that 10 people would come and see," said Nguyen, the one-time star of 1980s US television series "21 Jump Street".

"Once Upon a Time in Vietnam" takes the time-honoured Western tradition of a lone gun coming to the aid of a town under siege, updating the action with twists designed to appeal more to a modern audience.

"I've always liked the idea of a stranger coming to town," said Nguyen. "There's just something romantic about it and fantastical about it. With Sergio Leone there was a very haunting quality he put on top of the classic American Western, a sense of longing."

To that end, Nguyen provides the audience with a hero riding off into the sunset but the director said he was looking to the Asian marketplace by including some martial arts and technical CGI wizardry.

"I'd like to see a few more of these films [from Asia]," he said. "As the film market grows I'd like to think more filmmakers can enter this genre.

"These films give us a chance to look at the struggles of humanity," he said.

"The characters help us question what is good and what is bad."

The Busan festival continues until Saturday.

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