'Squattertown': World's first 'dim sum Western'
When German filmmaker Marco Sparmberg moved to Hong Kong three years ago, he had visions of indulging in the kind of cinematic life that spawned great directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark. It turns out that particular movie left cinemas a long time ago.
“Hong Kong is not a film city,” says Sparmberg with an obvious tinge of disappointment in his voice. “I had dreams of the 1980s, but things have changed.”
In the 1980s, Hong Kong was one of the world’s film capitals, churning out hundreds of blockbusters and B-films every year, including many that reinterpreted established film genres in inventive and exhilarating ways.
It all came crashing down after the handover as film financing fled to the rapidly expanding market of mainland China. These days, Hong Kong produces less than a quarter of the films it did in the early 1990s, and most of them are as bland and forgettable as they come.
Sparmberg had an idea: why not pay homage to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema by creating an entirely new genre?
The result is "Squattertown", a “dim sum Western” web series that will premiere at the end of June.
“Dim sum Western” is a kind of cinematic equivalent to Hong Kong’s ubiquitous “soy sauce Western cuisine.” Sparmberg took the revolutionary syncretism of 1960s Spaghetti Westerns -- think of anything by Sergio Leone -- and fused it with the stylized action sequences of 1980s Hong Kong movies.
Sparmberg first explored the concept in an eight-minute short film shot last year in a seaside village, but for this latest project, he wanted an even more distinctly Hong Kong setting -- so he turned his attention upwards.
Inspired by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham’s book "Portraits from Above," about the rooftop squatter settlements found on many old buildings in Hong Kong, Sparmberg envisoned a dystopian parallel universe in which Hong Kong’s wealth gap has grown to the point where a vast underclass is forced to live in a parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent.
Threatened by the sprawling rooftop settlement, the wealthy from below send up a hitman to kill the leader of the roof society. The scenario is fantasy, but like any good allegory, it’s not too far removed from reality.
“I was trying to tackle the issue of property developers trying to push out people by any means, especially those people in rooftop housing,” says Sparmberg. He spent two months scouting rooftops that would be good for shooting. He found most of them on buildings slated for redevelopment by property developers and the Urban Renewal Authority (URA).
“It’s a depressing situation,” he says. “Most of the people have already left, but when you talk to the families that stayed, they’ll tell you stories of break-ins, vandalism, ‘accidental’ fires. They’re really scared. They’ve built themselves something quite unique. It may look like a shanty, but it’s theirs -- they clean, they take care of it. But they’re all really under pressure. Houses that are empty have been torn down and smashed up.”
While Sparmberg and his crew had the support of rooftop dwellers, they weren’t able to get permission from the property management companies, who would refer them to the URA, which usually referred them back to the managers. They had no choice but to shoot guerilla-style.
“You have guards patrolling the buildings, so I checked their patrolling schedules and when it was time for them to come up to the roof, we went back down, had a coffee, took a break,” says Sparmberg. That forced some stylistic compromises.
“It had to be as raw and natural-looking as possible, rather than in a Western where everything is perfect,” says cinematographer Diogo Martins. “It’s a bit like a documentary, where the skies are often blown out and everything is always in focus.”
It was well worth it. To anyone familiar with Hong Kong, the series’ shantytown aesthetic is instantly familiar, and "Squattertown" captures the uncanny feeling of being in a faraway village suspended high above the street.
In fact, for one scene that involved too many crew and actors to take up to the roof, Sparmberg filmed in the old fishing village Lei Yue Mun, whose ramshackle appearance mirrored that of the rooftops.
“You can actually see human interaction with the physical space,” says Martins, who grew up in Macau and was already familiar local informal architecture.
“You can see how people made everything by hand, with creases and imperfections. It’s something you see on rooftops, in places like Lei Yue Mun, but you don’t see it in the streets anymore, because they have become more mechanical.”
Some of the locations that "Squattertown" used for shooting last fall have already been demolished. One was partly destroyed by a suspicious fire that killed one of the rooftop inhabitants.
“When we were scouting on a roof in Kwun Tong, we saw one family living up there, and as we shot, we met more people living there,” says Martins. “After we had finished we went back to get some pick-ups and it was completely empty. No one was left.”
How to make an indie film with no money
Pioneering a new film genre isn’t the only novel thing about "Squattertown". With no cash and few screening venues for independent filmmakers, Sparmberg and his crew had to find new ways to get it made and seen.
Normally, a film is funded through a combination of grants, subsidies, commercial sponsorship and funding from commercial studios.
“That can take years,” says Sparmberg. Instead, he turned to IndieGoGo and mySherpas, two new websites that crowdsource funding for independent projects like "Squattertown". MySherpas founder Markus Zabel, who is based in Munich, sees this as a more democratic approach to film funding.
“The main advantage is that [it’s] not a certain institution or jury [that] decides whether the film is supported or not -- the crowd does,” he says. “The web make it possible to support anyone around the world.”
When it is released at the end of June, "Squattertown" will be broadcast on the web and through a custom-designed mobile application. If it does well, it could serve as a new model for Hong Kong’s indie filmmakers.