Mud, blood, and not a single tear. That’s the formula of a good spaghetti western. On this rainy Sunday afternoon, we went to see a Django-double feature at the Cinematheque, the great free-for-all movie theatre run by the Korean Film Archive (한국영상자료원 / KOFA).
First Sergio Corbucci’s original Django (장고) from 1966. Although rather short for a western, just about 90 minutes, nothing was hasty or hurried here. The simple story—from Django (Franco Nero) pulling his coffin into town to the final duel at the graveyard—unfolded smoothly, one thing lead to another.
While the beginning was rather predictable for anyone who’s ever heard the name of Clint Eastwood, in the second half some surprising twists and turns made the movie fun to watch. There are also a few really weird scenes: a tricky MacGyver-moment, the cutting of an ear, a round of spontaneous mud wrestling…
Speaking of mud, this movie is really a gritty, dirty, and—yes, quite literally, as the movie was shot in Spain after some rainy days—muddy one. Although drenched in mud up until his forehead, Django still looks well-manicured most of the time, especially when the camera pans upwards from his dirty boots to his grinning face. Add some choreographies of people shooting—or getting shot—in sync and you have a film that is worth watching even if you don’t understand everything.
That was the case for me, as Django was shown in the original Italian version. The Korean subtitles helped a bit, but I’m sure I missed some interesting details, especially the subtext on ethnicity. Django takes sides in a war between Mexican gangsters and yankee freelancers who has teamed up with the Mexican government and all kinds of “white/black blood” related curses and comments are common.
Given that incomplete information, all I can say in favor of the movie is that the Mexican gangsters were neither the bad boys per se. Nor were they drawn as complete fools—at least not more than the “gringo”-henchmen.
Ethnical issues featured much more prominently in Django Unchained (장고: 분노의 추적자), Quention Tarantino’s latest revenge flick that came out earlier this year. After a quick tteokbokki-dinner (at 미숙이네 떡뽀끼, where they serve the only curry-flavored tteokbokki-sauce I ever had), we were ready for this epic exploitation take on slavery in the US.
I can’t retell the whole (three hour) plot here. Suffice it to say that it’s basically a cinematic “Bildungsroman” set in the pre-Civil War West. It’s the coming-of-age of “young Django” (Jamie Foxx), as his mentor and father-figure Dr. dent. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) addresses him.
In the very first scene, Schultz buys Django from slave traders to use him for his real job: bounty hunting. As the two work together—Django has been released of being a slave and been given the surname “Freeman”—, the German doctor teaches him all he knows about the trade, which is seeking, shooting, and selling the gangsters wanted dead or alive.
Following up on his successful international debut in Tarantino’s last movie Inglourious Basterds (2009), Christoph Waltz is once again cast as an eloquent “Feingeist” (some kind of sophisticado, literally “a refined mind”), although this time a Good one. The bounty hunter poses as a dentist and talks himself out of any kind of trouble in three languages, just too enjoy a cold draft beer afterwards. That’s his German heritage, you know.
Schultz sees in Django an American version of mythic middle-age hero Siegfried, the protagonist of the “Nibelungenlied” (Song of the Nibelungs), that also served as inspiration for Wagner’s opera-cycle Ring of the Nibelung. Interestingly, this years production at the Bayreuth Festival is partly “set in a Route 66 US gas station and motel inhabited by Tarantino-style characters” (The Guardian).
Why this allusion to German folklore in a spaghetti western? Because the name of Django’s wife—the quest for whom is the film’s plot—is Broomhilda von Shaft, like Brunhilde from the “Song of the Nibelungs” and—well—Shaft from Shaft. She even speaks German! Well, she says three or four phrases, the rest is silence.
Django’s voice, too, is notoriously absent in this movie. Instead, it’s the German doctor who does the talking. He’s bringing up a black bounty hunter in the first two thirds of the movie, just to die at the right point for his graduate’s rite of passage: killing the perpetrators of his wife, setting the farm on fire, riding away in a blaze of glory.
While there are several quite ugly scenes, it is not so much the violence that’s annoying me in this film. Everyone who decides to see a Tarantino flick knows what he’s paying for, including me (although Cord Jefferson notes that “the gore seems different from the director’s previous efforts.”, via Gawker).
It’s the paternalistic gestus, not only of Schultz, but of the movie as a whole, that got on my nerves. Although the movie feels at times a bit like a buddy western (say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), this hierarchical dynamic—the morally proper German doctor teaches the slave how to get his revenge—makes the film in my eyes problematic.
True emancipation looks different. But then Django Unchained is not about Django. One might argue that it’s about Django’s “unchaining”, or rather him “getting unchained”. Most of all, however, as Jonathan Romney wrote in The Independent, “Django is about how white people love to talk, and how, once they start, their butts cannot be shut down.”
Yes, I love to talk, too. And I’ll try to shut up now. May I suggest just one more worthwhile report of “surviving” Django Unchained by Roxane Gay (via BuzzFeed).
– 28 July 2013 (日)