Six-String Samurai was an instant cult sensation at the tail end of the ’90s but in more recent years it has fallen into obscurity. Thanks to the folks at Vinegar Syndrome, we now have the film in a lavish 4K Ultra HD/Blu-Ray dual set. The film was a labour of love from director Lance Mungia and its star Jeffrey Falcon, although Falcon seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.
The concept behind the film is truly inspired: it’s essentially Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max. Falcon stars as Buddy, a guitar-slinging samurai who has more than a casual resemblance to Charles Hardin Holley from Lubbock, Texas. Buddy ends up on a quest to Lost Vegas after a DJ makes a call-out on the air for a musician to become the new king of rock’n’roll after King Elvis dies. He is joined on the road to Lost Vegas by a nameless boy, who is referred to simply as “boy” throughout the film. It gives the film a Lone Wolf and Cub dynamic, which I’m sure was Mungia’s intention.
The script is so-so, and at times it’s undeniably repetitive, but the sheer imagination and ambition on screen is utterly infectious. Hint for budding filmmakers: if you want to make a film for very little money that is constantly visually arresting, shoot in the desert! It may be a fucking hot shoot, but it will be worth it—also, you can probably shoot permit-free for much of it!
Mungia did do something incredibly dumb with the film, which was to imitate the spaghetti westerns by overdubbing most if not all of the dialogue in the film. It’s a cute idea, but it somewhat distracts from what is a very impressive film technically in almost every other department, given the film’s low budget. Jeffrey Falcon may not look that much like Buddy Holly, but it works completely. and his martial-arts action is incredibly skilful. He is credited as having worked on at least a dozen Hong Kong movies early in the ’90s, but came back to the States a few years before Six-String Samurai, and that’s how he met Mungia. He seems to have maybe moved back there at some point, but Mungia tried to track him down for his documentary and couldn’t find a lead anywhere. Falcon was actually up for the Cyclops role in the first X-Men film. Mungia had to explain to him about the X-Men, but he decided to not show up for the audition.
I hadn’t seen Six-String Samurai for many years, and had been somewhat disappointed with it the first time I saw it: I enjoyed it, but the version in my head after reading the synopsis was better. It’s certainly flawed, but the Vinegar Syndrome release really made me appreciate the film a lot more. It has a great score, which is more Dick Dale than Buddy Holly. There is one track “Surfing in Siberia” by the film’s composers, The Red Elvises, that sounds suspiciously like “Misirlou” but actually has its basis in an old Eastern Mediterranean folk song, so it’s fair game. Any film that has Buddy Holly facing off with essentially Slash from Guns N’ Roses is worth a watch.
The Vinegar Syndrome release comes in a truly beautiful magnet clasp box with a fat 40-page booklet. Mungia does one solo commentary and another with the film’s cinematographer, Kristian Bernier. The main extra, however, is a three-part feature-length documentary on the making of the film: the production value is out of this world for a documentary shot during lockdown. Other labels should really take note of how well-produced it was… it probably helps that Mungia is the co-director of the documentary. Mungia’s student film Garden of Rio, which is a startling little magical realist short somewhat in the vein of Federico Fellini or Emir Kusturica, is also included. It’s a shame that the only feature film Mungia has made since is The Crow: Wicked Prayer, about which probably the less said, the better.