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Tag: Johnny To

The Western in Exile from the West

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.

The Guilded Age Called; It Would Like Its Iconography Back

I find something totally fascinating about this mix of self-realization male-bonding rhetoric and the oddly juxtoposed image of be-hatted and be-mustachioed manly men enjoying each other’s company. Says a lot–I believe–about how we view masculinity through a lens of American never-was nostalgia, or at least how my own education in how to desire has allowed insight into those larger culturally-taught skills.

Take, for example, the guy whose arm is draped so lovingly in his pal’s lap and try to imagine that not signifying coupling up if you saw two men doing it in an American public space. I have the same sort of feeling watching a lot of the Johnny To movies, where male bonding manages to be sexual without being sexualized, if I can make that distinction; since I probably can’t, what I mean is this: when the other gangsters in Exiled tear Lam Suet’s pants off to show that he has gotten excited by their talk of brothels, it both is and isn’t homoerotic as the term would be most basically defined the American cultural lowest common denominator. Of course it is about sex and it’s about sex in a way that bonds men together in the absence of women, but it isn’t about sex in the way the American sexual idiom teaches us to read it as–as a prelude to actual sexual congress, and therefore a catalyst and a warning–were it to happen in an American movie, for example. In other words, while it’s roughly translatable, like reading Brazilian Portuguese when you know Spanish, it also registers as a significantly foreign idiom. You can make sense of it, but you can’t ignore that there’s more going on than you can fully decode, nor can what you fully incorporate the things you understand you don’t understand.

This poster gives me the same feeling. While the language of self-help is utterly familiar–from the presumption that without help you will continue “spoiling relationships” to the unexplained valorization of “change” and “living more fully in the present moment”–the picture itself feels oddly dissonant, like a badly subtitled movie. They stare at that camera the way my grandfather’s generation did, that mix of guarded solemnity and veiled posing, produced by a very different relationship to the camera. While the poster’s text implies an unmediated collectivity of men, the relationship around the central older man suggests to me a family portrait, and if the absence of women does not necessarily signify anything per se (as it does in the poster’s text), it is at least consonant with the rugged frontierish vibe they’re giving off, from the rough wooden post to the neck-kerchief to the hats worn indoors; these are manly men, but what kind of manliness is it? Are these men that cherish male-bonding, or is it the rugged masculinity of the frontier cowboy, who creates domestic spaces but can never fully be at ease within them? The outdoor clothes worn indoors would seem to indicate the latter, if I can speculate.

But even more telling, I think, is the manner in which placing an intentionally anachronistic image of masculinity in the context of an implied present crisis of masculinity speaks to how masculinity is enunciated through reference to history. After all, as the EotAW reminds us in their list of American verities, American masculinity is always in crisis, always under threat by some incarnation of the advancing frontier of domesticity that is enabled by and then consumes the gloriously violent homo-social space of the Western frontier, bringing in its wake the emasculating forces of the market, the factory, or cosmopolitan urbanism. But the corollary to that verity is that masculinity is always just having emerged from its golden age, always nostalgically looking back to the time when men were real men and when women knew their place (as in this case, outside the frame). Yet the feeling of anachronism doesn’t go away, exactly; it remains in the frame, speaking worldessly, and perhaps giving shape–as unincorporated surplus–to masculine desires that the desires we’ve been educated into can’t speak to.

My Second Run on Karma Went Better Than the First

The first time I saw Johnny To’s Running on Karma, I liked it. As is often the case with To, the opening sequence is worth the price of admission alone, though for once the payoff is conceptual (and a delayed gratification) more than simply visual theatrics. To cram it into one ridiculaous sentence: Andy Lau’s excessive masculinity is a vehicle for voyeuristically enjoying a certain kind of embodiment that the rest of the film frames and analyzes, but the scene also deftly uses Lau’s vulnerability as embodied to start the film’s romantic drama rolling. A less ridiculous sentence: it’s incredibly well done, so go and see the film.

But the first time I saw it, I was also vaguely irritated by the film’s implicit glorification of police work. Even though the Hong Kong police are portrayed as fairly vindictive and brutal, the female lead attempts to work off her karmic debt by catching criminals, and Andy Lau assists her. There’s even a key moment in the film when the male lead believes she’s given up her calling in the police force (he sees her wearing rave gear in the company of rave-types) and he’s gravely disappointed. We’re gravely disappointed. But, of course, it turns out that she’s been working undercover, busting rave types instead of partying. Whoo! What a relief.

The nadir for me was the ominous tabla music that plays when the creepy scary indian criminals show up and menace Hong Kong, the way a “middle eastern scale” might start playing in the background when islamo-fascists menace the republic in a good clean patriotic American drama. Racializing criminality (or criminalizing race) is subtle that way, teaching you to fear the cultural markers of difference, but there was nothing subtle about this: the murderous criminals they chase down are as unambiguously bad (and as clearly ethnically differentiated) as you could possibly want. They’re even rendered in an almost comic book super-villain idiom, with particular super skills, just to make it totally clear that catching them is utterly within the realm of good clean decent police drama. And like a Spider-man comic, our hero Andy Lau catches them not by using deadly force, but by humanely caging them in elaborate metal traps, and then leaving them there for the police to collect.

There’s several moments in To’s Breaking News where a child refuses to help or serve food to the criminals that are holding him and his family hostage, and I’m not sure how to take such moments. On the one hand, the film (sometimes called a “Hong Kong Dog Day Afternoon“) clearly empathizes with its bad guys, no less than Lumet empathizes with the bank robber that Deniro plays in DDA. But, on the other hand, the film also kills them all off; while it can’t exactly side with the police (like DDA it prefers to show them as deceptive and frighteningly violent) neither does it want to imagine a world in which crime pays, so it insulates itself from all the problems it raises by wiping the slate clean by the end. We might like the criminals, the way we might sympathize with the indians in cowboy movies, but we’re enabled to do so by the inevitability of their doom.

This is characteristic of a broad sweep of American genre tradition, I think, and it’s a way to conceptualize why The Wire can’t stop killing off the criminals and why all of its redemption narratives have to center on the forces of law and order. We toy with perceiving criminals as human, but their narratives are always tragic; only the police narratives can comedically resolve into a re-establishment of hearth and home. There’s a kind of dialectic that you can find in a broad sweep of these American genres, which mediate between tragedy and comedy, between sympathizing with the doomed and being vaguely unsatisfied with the victorious. The bad guys are always at least a little bit good, and the good guys are always at least a little bit bad, but the essential lines of demarcation don’t fundamentally change.

So I was irritated, initially, when Running on Karma didn’t seem to be playing by these rules. It was not merely blandly self-assured in praising the self righteousness of police work, as in Kurasawa’s Stray Dog, for example; it was downright messianic, using the vast heavenly mechinery of Karma to endow catching dirty ethnic criminals with transcendent virtue. This seemed less good to me.

But the second time I saw it, I picked up on a variety of things I’d not noticed before. For one thing, I’d forgotten how much care is taken to quietly establish, early on, that Andy Lau’s character is an illegal alien himself (from mainland China). And I’d forgotten how much police brutality there actually is in the film, how much unnecessary violence the cops end up exerting as they chase their comic book villains (and against Lau, for no reason). Perhaps more importantly, I’d also misunderstood why it was that all the police officers seemed to harbor such an enormous grudge against the female lead: in the opening chase sequence, she accidentally shoots a police dog (because the super ninja she’s chasing wraps a chain around her gun) and the rest of the squad is angry at her.

Events, it turns out, simply and amorally have consequences, something the film takes increasing pains to establish as the real force driving its narrative, like a passenger being plucked out of a speeding car by the rapture. If the police are brutal, there’s a reason; maybe not a good or bad reason, but a reason. And as this theme takes over the film’s final third, I started to get what it was doing in a way I hadn’t the first time. The last part of the film is so suprising, so creepy, and yet so sweet, that the first time I saw it I simply hadn’t processed the radical reconstruction it performs on the film’s first half. And while I was quick to respond to this Hong Kong police and kung fu drama as if it were simply an American genre piece, the thing that makes it work, finally, as a unified artistic work, is the fact that it resolves a conflict that feels very American in origin to me–the stereotypical depression-era loss of faith in good guys and muted sympathy with bad guys thing–by employing a set of resolutions that could not exist in an American film. So as I was biking home, I suddenly noticed, and marvelled at my prior myopia, that the movie’s actual ending hinges on the thing I had been thinking it rejected: the rehabilitation of the criminal as human and a repudiation of the violent function of police work. That was a pretty good film, I though to myself.

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