When Director Shuaiyu Liu wanted to mix a number of cultures in his film Good Friend from the West, he had only one cinematographer in mind. Having been on set with Mufeng Han on a number of previous films, Liu knew intuitively that Han would not only understand the aesthetic idea he wanted to communicate but could also create the harmony between its influences. It’s quite a substantial demand for a film that mixes cowboys, Native Americans, Chinese workers, gunfights, and martial arts. Quentin Tarantino's recent Oscar winning Western The Hateful Eight proved that present day audiences still love the genre but appreciate a modern twist on it. Good Friend from the West takes the idea a step further with a Kung Foo Western full of action on the surface while slyly asking the audience to ponder who is being subjugated and who is the real hero. There are many layers to the story and its presentation presents something for the action fan as well as the deep thinker. Particularly prominent is the look of this film which bridges the spaghetti westerns with those of today.
Good Friend from the West presents the cultural hodgepodge that was the late nineteenth century American West. The story begins when an enslaved Chinese railroad worker named Wong escapes his bondage. While fleeing, he encounters a wounded cowboy named John who is being pursued by Native American soldiers. Wong’s Kung Fu training demands that he comes to the cowboy’s aid and also allows him to overpower these soldiers. John has stolen a precious gem from the Chief of this tribe and it’s here that the ethical complexity of the story deepens. The film’s writers have rejected the typical good guy/bad guy tropes for a much more layered storyline…all set against the beautiful vistas of the great American West. Combining shoot-out scenes with martial arts fighting is as unintuitive as it is mesmerizing on camera. The visual component blends ideally with this fresh take on a traditional Western film.
Mufeng confirms that he paid homage to films like A Fistful of Dollars and other Spaghetti Westerns. His fast zoom-in shots owe more to the 1970s than the early 2000s and thus communicate an old sensibility and appreciation for classic films of the genre. Juxtaposed against the plot, this greatly adds to a feeling of familiarity for the overall mood of Good Friend from the West. From the opening scene in which we see a thin Chinese railworker runs through the desert holding a shoulder pole, the black comedic tone of the film is established. Han’s framing instantly tells us that life is dangerous and yet beautiful; taunting us to laugh at the dichotomy. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about this film is how it appeals to differing parts of the entertainment palette. When the Native Americans appear to attack John again, Mufeng’s zooms convince us that this is a traditional cowboy versus Indian film. During the fight however, the numerous quick takes (about three seconds each) convince the audience that a martial arts film has been dropped into the middle of the story. Equally prominent is the shocking final scene which blindsides viewers and once again presents an emotional personality vastly different than the actions sequences.
Though it might sound chaotic in the written word, Good Friend from the West seems unusually natural as presented by the filmmakers. While it seems like every type of story has been presented, the team behind this film has combined influences in a way that seems innovative. DP Han concurs, “Our crew communicated so well together. I really appreciate how important that is on this film. The film definitely benefitted from this. Each department understood the direction of the others and what their goal was. Different influences, different roles; they can work together for a very pleasing result…just like in the film.”