Kim Ji-woon and the Manchurian Western

The cultish stylization of the outlaw in The Good, the Bad, the Weird

from Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (New York: Atheneum, 1992)

A highly developed sense of the genre as genre–a self-reflexive awareness of the conventionality of the language on which he draws and works. The common denominator in their Westerns is “a particular kind of abstraction and stylization,” where “[a] single element of the Western is isolated from its original context and made the subject of exaggerated attention and concern, even to the point of fetishization”: hence, a fetishization of particular kinds of weapon, legendary gunfighter with extraordinary skills, Western tropes reconfigured through camp sensibilities, etc. (380)

Fetishization of violence → Hannah Arendt, On Violence → The rise of the violence question as a symptom of the social condition (the 1960s) where the faculty of action is deeply frustrated.

Susan Sontag → The Camp essay → The primacy of form over content.

The emphasis on psychology was accompanied by the de-emphasis of social/historical contexts, that is, “the dismissal of politics, social criticism and the idea of revolution from the film of mythological play,” which was in a way “a self-proctetive gesture at a time when the postwar ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood made political statements of any kind potentially dangerous.” More importantly, however, the shift from history to myth-historical narratives was an outcome of the changing milieu where radical forms of social analysis was losing their momentums and the end of ideology was proclaimed (381).

“The revenger Western isolates [the passionate anger and desire to avenge] and privatizes it…The revenger always faces a world in which social authority and community support are lacking; he must rely on himself, and perhaps one other person, for the fulfillment of his obsessional quest and/or redemption. Thus the revenger Western also fetishized ‘psychology,’ isolating the private dimension of the original story and replacing social with exclusively personal motives, insisting (in effect) that the private dimension determines the whole significance of the story” (382).

Another noteworthy strand in the postwar psychological Western is the gunfighter Western which adopts the noir sensibility of the revenger Western and its concern with character.  Distinctive in the gunfighter Western is that the gunfighter is invariably a killer by profession, a professional of violence (e.g., Henry King’s Gunfighter, 1950). The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-bioled commentary on the nature of American society and the gunfighter embodies the central paradox of America’s self-image in an era of Cold War: “a sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of crucial events” (383).

Park Chang-yi’s gunfighter professionalism

In a highly stylized form, gunfighting becomes a game where there can be two suns at once, where one should always and for ever confront challengers and reputation is only achieved and retained by defeating those challengers, where the gunslinger becomes akin to the star, the person entrapped in a game where he or she can never stop seeking a higher point → “The mood of entrapment was to shape the narrative and the landscape through which the gunfighter would move, seeking refuge or escape from his special history and failing to find it” (385). In this sense, the gunfighter Western is a self-reflexion on postwar America and also a movie about movie. As with America that had risen as the world power after the victory in WWII, the lone gunfighter is “at once the most powerful and the most vulnerable man in the world” (390). Gunfighting is also comparable to gambling which initially does not have any value except its function as a means of having fun or killing time, but becomes the end.

The gunfighter is always to be watchful. His peripheral vision misses nothing. He always sits in the corner, never with his back exposed, never with anything left behind. He lives according to a discipline of watchfulness, preparedness, and restraint–the marks of his professionalism and signs of his isolation (387).

The politics of stylization: The heavy dose of the mangaish sensibilities

George Steven’s Shane (1953) as an exemplary case of the aestheticized gunfighter Western:

The historical and naturalistic references are offset by a perspective (identified with Joey’s point of view) that insists on abstracting and stylizing every person and action and looking through history to find a mythic archetype, which is given force by Steven’s alternation of naturalistic and folkloric elements in scenes where elements are exaggerated and distorted to achieve an ‘epic’ effect (e.g., an heroic action coupled with responsive Nature as in the Homeric world–a tragic event with lightning) (397).

“Shane arrives from outside, and his past is concealed…But because Shane’s motives for helping the farmers are unique and arise from no visible history or social background, they appear to be expressions of his nature, signs of a nobility which is independent of history, like the attributes of a ‘higher race,’ Shane is never part of the community, and his superior values are not seen as belonging to the community. He is an aristocrat of violence, an alien from a more glamorous world, who is better than those he helps and is finally not accountable to those for whom he sacrifices himself” (400).

The return to mythic space beyond both left and right ideologies

A more fundamental dimension of Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) than both the left and the right perspective: From a leftist perspective, the film is usually interpreted, as its screenwriter Foreman intended, as an allegory of Hollywood’s surrender to McCarthyism…the same people who in an earlier and less prosperous time had risen up to defeat the enemy have not grown too comfortable or complacent to risk their lives and fortunes for the public good. On the other hand, a rightist reading can detect in the return of old villains a rise of a new Fascism such as Communism…Beneath the ‘left’ perspective of the gunfighter film and the ‘right’ perspective of the cavalry film is a common ideological structure that devalues ‘democracy’ as an instrument of progress and declares that the only effective instrument for constructive historical action is a gun in the hands of the right man (395-96).

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