The Western in Exile from the West

by zunguzungu

Johnny To’s Exiled is such a goddamn Western. The opening sequence is amazing for many reasons, but one of the things I find most affecting about it is the constant wind blowing in through the windows, the invasion of air from the outside into the domestic space. De Mille’s The Plainsman (which, like Stagecoach, was one of the late thirties attempts to retool the western) has a great moment where tumbleweeds keep blowing into the house that the “good” female lead is trying to build, just before Gary Cooper arrives to take her husband off to war. In Exiled, the wind is the same kind of quasi-expressionist sturm-and-drang figure for the gangsters who have come to take the husband away from his family, and the omnipresence of that wind manages very nicely to illustrate the insufficiency of her domestic cocoon, the way the frame in which the wife and child are ensconsed (thereby gendering the terms) is impossibly doomed*. As a succession of gangsters pound on her door, she can force them to wait outside, but to do so is only to delay the inevitable.

In that figure, you have the movie in a nutshell: exiled, Wo and his family have “come home” to a place that is on the verge of ceasing to be, a home that is ceasing to be home. Macau is being handed over to China, and Boss Fay from Hong Kong-who will kill Wo-is taking over the place. What might have once been a refuge is no longer; “home” is a tenuous and fast disappearing shelter from the storm.

Practically a definition of the genre, in other words. But what really makes the film work, on the other hand, is what happens after the second big shootout in the clinic, the escape into the desert and into a kind of philosophical quest framed by the flipping coin. The film has to do something radically different than what it’s already done, because the merely glossy archetypicality of the Western tropes (faceoffs, winds, domestic spaces being invaded, brotherhood) can’t sustain the movie without actually becoming cliches. So the desert interlude – “How much is a ton of love?” – is lovely, and works, I think, to nicely cleanse the pallate after the baroque excesses of the underground clinic shoot-out. The fluttering curtains and Wo’s dirty tarp shroud are visually as stunning as the clip I’ve youtubed above, but one can only aestheticize violence so far before it becomes unsustainable. So To Kai-Fung very nicely backs away from that style of visual narrative into a minimalist sequence of dusty parched wilderness, hanging somewhere between the philosophizing of Kurasawa at his most existential and the worldless philosophy of American Westerns. Having just seen Three Godfathers, it strikes me as very similar to that film, but only if the baby had died leaving the outlaws on the run from the law and from themselves. Wilderness has now gone from home-wrecker to purgatory.

Of course, it’s also implausible: the four hitmen must have had to drive a long time to find a backdrop in Macau that would be appropriate for a desert sequence – so they eventually film it in a quarry of some sort – but this indicates to me how important it was to give the “Buddha Mountain” sequence that sort of ambiance. Along with the slide guitar on the soundtrack (and, eventually, a harmonica played within the scene), the desert backdrop harkens back even more explicitly to the Western idiom the film is articulating, the idea of the desert that underwrites so much of the ideological work that the Western does as a genre. This film is doing subtly different work, I suspect, but it’s using a well-established vocabulary to do it; although the home that is being lost or gained is defined not by the frontier but by handover, we are familiar with the manner in which its inside/outside narratives of home and loss are articulated through gender (the cigar smoking gangsters that pound on her door, that interrupt the doctor’s having sex, that shoot Simon Lam in the balls, and that ultimately fail to recreate a domestic space through homosocial bonding) and with the manner in which gender is tracked by violence (the gun violence that makes a home will also, inevitably tear it apart).

For Teddy Roosevelt, the great theorist of the West, the difference between the cowboy and the farmer was fundamental, and while the former cleared the wilderness with violence, he could never be a true husband to the land. This was the tragedy of the closing frontier for him, as Turner would give it in his own particular articulation: an American spirit that was defined by the violence of clearing away the wilderness had to give way to the more gentle farmers that would follow. For Roosevelt, it was a decline and fall narrative, one which he imagined forestalling by extending the frontier out to imperial spaces abroad, sending cowboys charging up San Juan hill (and, by the way, “reading” the darker peoples of the world through the genocidal paradigms set up by indian warfare). But this conflict between the violence that makes a home and the violence that destroys it – the violence that makes the cowboy also makes him incapable of – is at the heart of so many of the great Westerns. I’m thinking of High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in particular, both of which I’ll actually blog about in more detail at some point. But in brief, I think both of those movies try to explode the problem that Exiled seems more interested in inhabiting: that a domestic space carved out by violence will inevitably die by that sword.

High Noon, for example, turns the Quaker wife into a purveyor of violence, thus undoing the only thing that made her a character and (presumably) the basis of his love for her, while Cooper’s own use of extralegal violence (shooting a bandit in the back) manages to save the town only by shaming them and making himself into an exile. You couldn’t ask for a more damning and devastating employment of the “violence kills love” trope, nor could you ask that it be more thoroughly Rooseveltian in its articulation: the man of violence carves civilization out of desert savagery, but by that very process becomes superfluous, even dangerous to it. The complete insufficiency of the “happy” ending (whereby the bad guys are dead and the husband and wife are together again) only better shows how impossible it is to mediate the contradiction: wife has become a monster to herself, and husband has become the very criminal he thought he was fighting.

One could make a similar argument with respect to Liberty Valance, but I don’t want to use up my Ford quota for this month, so I’ll let High Noon stand as the example. What’s so weird about those endings is the ways High Noon and Liberty Valance so powerfully illustrate the incommensurability of female domesticity and manly violence that their endings, which magically bridge the gap, are powerfully unsatisfying. Who the fuck did shoot Liberty? Stoddard’s wife still loves John Wayne, and the newspapers won’t print the truth. The plot resolves into a happy ending, as it had to, but that resolution is as empty as Gary Cooper’s motivations for staying and fighting in High Noon: no one in town wants him to stay and fight, but he is completely unable to articulate why he has to, other than that he has to. The plot simply demands it, in a way that disables human choice.

You could, in that vein, make the argument that the Western genre (overdetermined, as it always is, by the closing of the frontier) is ultimately about the foreclosures of fate, the ways our identities manifest our destinies and the ways that social context always closes in around us, fensing us in. It’s rare, after all, to find a twentieth century Western that takes seriously the possibility that one could “light out for the territories,” and when you find one, chances are good that it sucks. The Western begins, I think, the moment that ship sails.

In Exiled, on the other hand, the ship never quite sails. In a very literal sense, the hitmen have choices and this gives substance to their performance of Western cliché after cliché, rendering those gunfights with a depth and meaning that an automaton like Gary Cooper (who suffers but does not choose to suffer) or allegories like Wayne/Stewart lack. In their wilderness purgatory, the hitmen redeem themselves-illustrating, along the way, the incommensurability of violence gold and love-but they do so by choosing to go back, a choice that renders the meanings of possibility, rather than the tragedy of impossibility. Exiled doesn’t contradict itself with the impossible happy ending-a gesture of no faith in the party line that is not without significance-but translates the impossibility of turning violence into a home into a choice: do you play with the boys around a campfire or do you sacrifice everything for the family unit? And this choice is not an archetype, not an allegory. To’s actors are, for all their stylized sartoriality, able to invest their characters with a depth that American Westerns cannot, not because they’re better, but because they’re doing something different.

So my thesis is this: because American Westerns are obsessed and impressed with the omnipresent inevitability of the State’s hegemony, the ultimate impossibility of the freedom every cowboy is in search of, their resolutions tend towards reinforcing the impossiblity of the very escapist fantasies they enact. Yet the whole point of the To Western is that something new is being born as history takes a step forward; while the ideology of the American Western is always an avoidance of the future, Wo comes home not out of nostalgia but because he has a concrete plan, with a very real sense of what he will lose and gain, and he chooses to make that trade-off. The American Western understands home as an already always doomed and lost nostalgia, while Home, for Wo, is that which is being born.