Luck of the Draw
It takes a hard-boiled man with grit and guns for a shootout. He does not fear the bullet, even though he is a prisoner of time. The psychology of the gunfight in Hollywood Western movies is founded on precepts of luck and fate, yet the man of honour always triumphs. A gunfight is a test of valour; the strong man, the righteous man is quick on the draw and never misses his target because time is on his side. This ideology prevails in much of American culture – where honour presides over the rule of law – and in the Western movie genre the hero forges his reputation in acts of bloody revenge. This is the unspoken creed of iconic Western movies such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and likewise in Hong Kong cinema their screen idols are the characters of violent action thrillers. These contemporary protagonists are in essence ancient sword-fighting heroes, only they’re dressed in Western-style suits. The films directed by John Woo present the greatest spectacles of Hong Kong cinema. Woo was greatly inspired by the aesthetic of French action movies of the late 60s and 70s (like Le Cercle Rouge,1970), which were filmed at high speed so that the stock appeared grainy and highly contrasted. In Shootin’ from the Hip Brendan Lee has emphasised the look of the late 60s thriller, while also delineating its influence on Hong Kong action cinema.
The role of masculinity in art and film is an important issue presented by Lee’s recent work. It is no secret that the emergence of action hero movies was concurrent with the need for men to bolster their confidence, at a time when massive societal change threatened the longstanding position of men in patriarchal civilisations. Concerns of contemporary masculinity feature prominently in Hong Kong (HK) cinema of the 1980s; many films of the period renewed macho sensibilities through the depiction of the notorious underworld network of triad gangs and secret societies. They featured stories of male bonding and brotherhood, with plots that were often adapted from the genre of American gangster movies. In contrast to Hollywood action film however, HK cinema glorified the homoerotic aspects of violence where beautiful looking male gangsters possessed both sexual and mortal superiority. This context gives credence to the fine features of the gun totin’ looker in Shootin’ from the Hip – which may be an unconscious choice of casting but is not coincidental.
In the stylised aesthetics of action movies the restaurant makes for the perfect shootout setting, although it the set varies according to the culture of the film studio. In Hollywood westerns gunfights take place in the saloon bar, New York gangster films are set in trattorias and shootouts in Hong Kong movies are typically situated in the Chinese teahouse. In eateries there are numerous tables to be turned over, innocent bystanders to be interrupted from the everyday act of eating, lots of messy spills and many well-known escape routes, such as the toilet window and fire fights through kitchens full of boiling pots and hot saucepans. Countless Hong Kong action sequences have been shot in restaurants and Shootin’ from the Hip taps directly into the genre except for one distinction: there is no escape for this gunslinger.
In Shootin’ from the Hip the spectacles of violence are stylised with the staging of a virtuoso gun battle sequence using slow motion and montage techniques that stretch out time. At this speed the gunfight is like a balletic set piece; referencing the structure of gunfights in HK action films that are often choreographed as a dance sequence, with fancy footwork and acrobatics, gun juggling and twirling. Time always seems to slow down in a shootout sequence; in the case of the Western movie’s high noon shoot out, the camera and time are played off each others as the midday draws near. The footage cuts quickly from the Town Hall clock, to gunman then back the to clock, until the two cowboys swagger out into the open street for their date with destiny. Like the game of Russian roulette these men take their chances with fate, in the hope of cheating the odds of death.
It’s also luck of the draw in Shootin’ from the Hip in which Lee employs randomly generated footage. This is a deliberate ploy to disengage us from ordinary cinematic spectatorship, where the linear plot travels from start to finish. Similar to the device of suspense in film (that relies heavily on ‘the unseen off screen’ whereby the enemy or perpetrator is concealed) the tension is entirely dependant on what is anticipated. Yet the situation Lee creates has no immediate resolution. We wonder: how long will the gunslinger be ensconced in the restaurant? What is his character’s role, victim or perpetrator? Who is concealed behind that door? Instead of completing the narrative sequence, Shootin’ from the Hip deconstructs the time of the shootout. The moment of film unfolds in a different way and we consume a compressed series of cinematic excesses without the ordinary relief of an end in sight. Lee forces us to view the filmic action on screen from this unusual perspective so that we might consider anew how we look at cinema.
Lily Hibberd is a visual artist and founding editor of un Magazine, and as Brendan Lee’s special lady friend she had to endure many hours of action-packed schlock.