At a Shanghai building site, a man in a black Stetson looks over his shoulder at two approaching thugs. Four others appear, fists raised. They lock eyes and the cowboy springs up in a whirlwind of kicks.
The scene is from Shangdown: The Way of the Spur, an independent kung fu spaghetti western, and the cowboy is Christian Bachini, a 25-year-old Italian actor who came to Shanghai to become an action star.
Bachini grew up in Prato, the Tuscan city that has become a symbol of globalization after Chinese immigrants poured in to transform the traditional textile trade, but as a boy, he dreamed of going the other way to make movies.
“People thought I was crazy,” Bachini said at a Shanghai gym after a workout incorporating the tiger, praying mantis and drunken fist forms of kung-fu.
Jackie Chan’s Supercop inspired Bachini to become an actor, and Prato’s Chinese community meant he could learn the Hong Kong star’s moves from real kung fu masters.
After 13 years of kung-fu training, five years of practicing gymnastic-style “tricking” stunts, five years of acting school and six months of Mandarin classes, Bachini left for China in 2009.
He saw little choice. Italy has no action film industry, and he says Hong Kong and Hollywood have abandoned genuine action actors, opting instead to use regular actors and special effects. However, Bachini did not find the thriving scene in Shanghai he had imagined.
“I was a little bit disappointed. It’s the homeland of kung fu, but this seemed nothing like it,” he said. “When I made some contacts in the film industry, people were like: ‘Huh? An actor from Italy who wants to become a martial arts action star here? Doing kung fu? Unbelievable.’”
Bachini’s dream is not so outlandish. A handful of Western martial arts experts have gone on to movie stardom. However, in China, state censorship means action ingredients such as modern-day criminals are often out of bounds for local filmmakers, who focus instead on period dramas or contemporary love stories set in fictitious towns, he said.
That left few roles for Bachini, aside from the occasional token foreign bad guy — who inevitably is not meant to know any kung fu.
Stunt teams he met were motivated more by money than passion, charging for every fall or blow.
“One kick was 500 yuan [US$75]. It got me really disappointed because this was another aspect of Shanghai I wasn’t expecting,” Bachini said.
Despite the disappointments, he caught some breaks. A few months after arriving, a chance meeting with a movie producer at a Shanghai film fair led to a meeting with Chan. The producer asked for Bachini’s show reel. A week later, he invited him to Beijing for a weekend with Chan.
Chan studied the show reel, which was filmed by Bachini’s father. He did not have any immediate job offers, but he encouraged the Italian not to give up.
“Accept every small role they offer you and start building your career step by step,” Bachini said Chan told him. “But I don’t want to do this step-by-step stuff. I just want to go boom — do something big.”
Word of the meeting with Chan buzzed through Shanghai’s independent film scene and Richard Chung, an American who was shooting short films in the city, proposed making one to showcase Bachini.
The result was Kang: The New Legend Begins, a 12-minute fight scene in a Shanghai nightclub, that won the best short award at last year’s Action on Film Festival in Pasadena, California.