This month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter with each editor writing about something outside their usual domain. This week Carol Borden writes about movies. She can normally be found here.
The world is clamoring for more Asian Westerns. Or at least I am. I’m talking Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean Westerns.
They seem like the best ones around. So saddle up and let’s ride.
Wisit Sasanatieng, director; starring Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Suppakorn Kitsuwan
Rumpoey and Dum are in love, but Rumpoey’s father, the provincial governor, has arranged her marriage to a police captain. Meanwhile, Dum’s father is murdered and Dum becomes the vengeance-driven gunfighter and bandit leader, Black Tiger. Brightly colored, concerned with class, tragic and centered on impossible love, Tears of the Black Tiger is a weepy as well as a Western, creating a whole new genre of melodrama that is, like all good camp, affectionate toward its material.
The movie reminds me endlessly of other movies and other art. The stylized sets and saturated color remind me of 1960s cinema, particularly Douglas Sirk, but even more febrile. It’s gorgeous and completely artificial in a way reminiscent of more formal cultural pursuits, like opera or dance drama. Every
shot is a lobby card, pin-up or Warhol screenprint. And while there are many contemporary elements—shifting from past to present, directly addressing the audience—the movie still has a feel of older cinema, both Western and Thai. And it had a promotional campaign that I wish I could’ve seen—pulp novels and radio plays.
Chalerm Wongpim, director; starring Dan Chupong, Leo Putt, Panna Rittikrai, Samart Payakarun
Where his Ong-Bak 2 and 3 co-star Tony Jaa / Thatchakorn Yeerum is all elbows, Dan Chupong is all knees. And where Tony Jaa is all about elephants, Dan Chupong as Siang is all about water buffalo. Orphaned by an evil water buffalo rustler/ black magic practioner, Siang goes to work for a fireworks factory and is presumably raised by the fireworks factory workers. He later uses his rocket-making skills to steal back stock from predatory water buffalo dealers while he searchers for the one who killed his family. Dynamite Warrior is a martial arts movie with Western elements—a showdown, Siang’s hat, rustling, dust. There’s also spirit possession, a beautiful girl, social satire, an all-Isan cast and explosions. Plus, muay Thai movie legend, Panna Rittikrai.
Johnnie To, director; starring Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Lam Suet, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Roy Cheung
I have a pet theory that Johnnie To is making homages to each of his favorite directors. The Election films are his Coppola. Throwdown is his Kurosawa. Mad Detective is his Welles. And Exiled
is his Peckinpah.
Exiled is a sort of sequel to To’s 1999 The Mission, starring To’s usual suspects as different characters, and depicting Portugal’s 1999 handover of Macau to China in terms of a Triad take-over. But Western and Triad themes overlap: loyalty,
brotherhood, betrayal, respect. And Exiled deliberately evokes Westerns with its ringing church bells, the jingling spur-like ankle bells, sad guitar, window view of gunfighters in the streets, a reprise of the hat-shooting scene from For a Few Dollars More and slow motion Peckinpah puffs of blood.
Miike Takashi, director; starring Ito Hideaki, Ando Masanobu, Sato Koichi, Momoi Kaori, Iseya Yusuke and Quentin Tarantino
Miike Takashi prepared an introduction for Midnight Madness screening of Sukiyaki Western Django at the Toronto International Film Festival: “Of all the English-language Japanese Westerns in the festival this year, I hope this will be one of your favorites.”
It was. It fulfills the promise of both samurai movies and Westerns. And possibly, postmodernism. And it’s everything I never knew I wanted: an English-language Japanese Western mixing the Heike Monogatari‘s account of the artistocratic Genji vs. Heike civil war, with Shakespeare’s Histories recounting the aristocratic York vs. Lancaster civil war and Serbio Corbucci’s
Django—machine gun, red-clad killers and all.
As with Tears of the Black Tiger, Sukiyaki Western Django‘s a story of forbidden love and vengeance. A gunfighter seeks to avenge the deaths of his parents, members of rival clans in a desolate town that’s a reminiscent of, well, Django, but more fashion-conscious in its abstraction. But again, the main story isn’t all that important compared to the structure of the film itself. Sukiyaki Western Django stacks one similar story on another. Red and white. Heike and Genji.
Lancaster and York. And Djang.
But while it’s incredibly rooted in national histories, the film feels detached, like it’s outside time and space. Since the Western is a historical genre as much as a moral/mythological one, I wonder if Westerns do that to everyone’s history or maybe it’s just what America does. Clearly, the postmodernism’s got me half-cocked.
Kim Jee-Woon, director; starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung
Kim Jee-Woon makes a damn fine Western. Set in 1930 Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the film follows a bounty hunter, Park Do-Won/The Good, and two bandits, Park Chang-Yi / The Bad and Yoon Tae-Goo / The Weird as they pursue
Qing gold using a stolen Imperial Japanese treasure map.
And, if you like, you can line The Good, The Bad, the Weird up against Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, but, again unlike in Sukiyaki Western Django, the references aren’t essential. Kim Jee-Woon isn’t playing collect them all. Park Chang-Yi’s suit, the music box and the hat-shooting out of For A Few Dollars More aren’t intended for abstract appreciation. They’re just fun. I especially enjoyed the musical references and soundtrack, though. Westerns are about landscape, it’s true, but they’re also about silence and when–and–how to break it.
The movie’s fun and funny and, once again, postmodern. At the Q & A, Kim Jee-Woon said he had always thought of 1930s Manchuria as postmodern. As in
both Sukiyaki Western Django and Tears of the Black Tiger, Kim uses some anachronistic elements intended to translate through time, but, unlike them, The Good, The Bad, the Weird always feels rooted in a particular place, Manchukuo.
Jung Woo-sung (aka The Good) successfully wears a cowboy hat Manchuria. He also rides better than any actor I’ve seen. Maybe even better than Mifune Toshiro in The Hidden Fortress. And just so you know, there is unfortunately horse-tripping in the movie.
Carol Borden was lucky enough to see three of these films projected on a big screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. She was even on the red carpet for one, but that is a ridiculous story for another time. If you get the chance, you should see their glory in a theater. Monitors and even plasma screens don’t do Westerns justice.