Saturday, May 12, 2012

Soi Cowboys: On Some Recent Asian Westerns

When the Italians started making Westerns, these films were referred to as spaghetti Westerns; now, whether or not that term was initially meant to be derogatory, I can’t tell you, but it sounds affectionate in hindsight.  I like the sound of ‘spaghetti Western,” it sounds better to me than just plain “Western.” I have heard that Indian Westerns (like Sholay, which I haven’t seen, but that’s the big one) are referred to as “curry Westerns,” which sounds a little bit more racist, but whatever, again, I can see the affection in it.  But what are Asian Westerns? Rice Westerns? Because that just sounds downright racist, like back in the day when “buy American” types referred to Japanese cars as “rice-burners.” So I won’t call them “rice Westerns.” Come to think of it, I think I’ve heard Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo referred to as a spaghetti Western—it was the “inspiration” for A Fistful of Dollars (that is, the people who made A Fistful of Dollars ripped it off without obtaining the rights to it)—so perhaps any non-American Western can be a spaghetti western.

But this is neither here nor there.  I raise the issue only because I want to talk about some recent Asian Westerns.  I have three specific examples in mind: Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), and Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (2010).  Now, first off, what makes these movies “Westerns?” They don’t have the American landscapes, they don’t have Native Americans to dispossess or Mexicans to casually dispatch (Borges takes perverse pleasure in recounting an anecdote of Billy the Kid, in which the racist gunslinger boasts that he’s killed “twenty-one people, not counting Mexicans). There’s no “frontier,” and hell, there’s no “West.” But in the absence of an actual frontier, there’s a frontier mentality; these movies take place in neglected backwaters (Tears of the Black Tiger) and lawless warzones (The Good, The Bad, The Weird (GBW, we’ll call it for short) and Let the Bullets Fly).  Also, they may not have Native Americans or Mexicans to kill, but they do have that perennial figure of American westerns, the evil rich guy.  In the American films, he tends to be a cattle baron or an oil tycoon or something like that.  In Black Tiger, he’s an evil provincial governor; in Let the Bullets Fly, he’s an opium smuggler and human trafficker.

GBW is unique amongst these films in that the “bad guy” isn’t an individual tyrant, but rather a large institution: in this case, the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself.  What I want to discuss briefly in this post is why and how each of these movies uses the Western genre.

Tears of the Black Tiger is engaged, first and foremost, in a large-scale pastiche/parody of Thai b-movies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most of this source material has not been released in the United States, so the viewer of Sasanatieng’s movie comes to understand these sources only through Sasanatieng’s gleeful distortion of them.  Perhaps a Thai viewer who “got the references” would derive the same satisfaction that a college film student derives from a Quentin Tarantino movie, or that someone “in the know” would get while watching The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray says to Owen Wilson, “Not this one, Ned,” which is totally a reference to Jules and Jim, and isn’t it just satisfying to “get that?” I sound more sarcastic and intolerant here than I mean to.  I don’t object to allusions.  In fact, I derive great pleasure from them.  Half the pleasure of certain Borges stories (to come back to Borges again) comes from the erudition on display.  Perhaps I only mock reference-chasers because I’m embarrassed to count myself among their ranks, much as a hipster affects to despise hipsters or a gay Republican campaigns against gay rights.

Oh, right, Tears of the Black Tiger.  Well, the Western genre here is used to take the viewer on a whirlwind nostalgia trip through Thai movie melodrama history, mixed with a healthy dose of homoeroticism and psychedelia.
A representative still from Tears of the Black Tiger

The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which takes its title from the quintessential spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is engaged largely with the task of having fun with genre tropes.  The movie follows three Korean adventurers in Japanese-occupied Manchuria as they race each other to the location of a hidden treasure, while simultaneously avoiding their fellow outlaws, Chinese and Korean nationalist rebels, and the Japanese Imperial Army.  It’s probably the funniest movie you’ll ever see about the Japanese occupation of China, which may or may not be a dubious distinction, depending on how you want to look at it. (I always like to recommend Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel Allah is Not Obliged by saying, “It’s the funniest book you’ll ever read about child soldiers,” which is true).

Just as a side note, why is this Korean movie set in Manchuria? Because the Korean peninsula just isn’t big enough for a Western, or at least not one on this scale, with the characters chasing each other on horseback or motorcycle through vast desert wastes, the pursuing Japanese Army raising an enormous dust cloud as they give chase.  The optics just wouldn’t have been the same if the film had been set in Korea.
Song Kang-ho, riding a motorcycle in Manchuria

Let the Bullets Fly also has a great sense of fun, but this fun is tempered by a biting and satirical indignation.  The film follows bandit leader Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen, directing himself) who kidnaps the incoming governor of a small town during the Chinese civil war and decides to become governor himself.  He comes into conflict with local bigwig Huang Fox (Chow Yun-fat), who’s made his fortune through the trafficking of opium and humans.  Their face-off is one of escalating corruption, violence, and disregard for human life (although our sympathies generally remain with Zhang, because he’s a bandit, and therefore romantic, after all, whereas Huang Fox is the Chinese civil war equivalent of, oh, I don’t know, Silvio Berlusconi).
Chow Yun-fat is a much more handsome Silvio Berlusconi

Jiang Wen employs the Western genre in Let the Bullets Fly because the lawlessness that pervades the Western setting allows his characters’ greed and calculating amorality to be played out to their most outrageous possible extremes.

Let the Bullets Fly is the highest grossing Chinese movie in history, which is astonishing, given how subversive the whole thing is.  It’s not difficult to see the corruption on display in Jiang’s film and to find its modern parallel in the country of Bo Xilai, so how it made it past the censors is beyond me.  Jiang himself has been a controversial figure over the years.  His 2000, black-and-white masterpiece, Devils on the Doorstep, about a group of Chinese villagers during WWII who suddenly find themselves in possession of a Japanese prisoner, provoked controversy not just for its subject matter—the Chinese in the film were insufficiently saintly, the Japanese insufficiently monstrous (or too monstrous, according to the film’s Japanese co-producers)—but for the way Jiang went about distributing it.  In 2000, he premiered it at the Cannes Film Festival without first seeking the approval of the Chinese Film Bureau.  In retaliation for this undermining of their authority, they banned the film from being distributed in China and prohibited Jiang from directing movies for the next seven years.  I should imagine Jiang feels vindicated, what with returning from this period with the highest grossing Chinese movie ever.

I suppose it’s noteworthy that, although the Western is all but dead in the United States, its generic structures continue to flourish overseas.  But it seems to be just the structures.  Nobody makes a straight Western anymore; if people make Westerns, they always do so with an element of post-modern pastiche.  Maybe that’s for the best.

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