Cowboy Joe (USA, 2018)

Though only a film of under six minutes, Jingjing Tian’s Cowboy Joe can be divided into two distinct parts. The first part is in the vein of the Asian American cinema canon and its perennial themes, here, of identity and the generation gap. One day, Joe (Condor Shou) decides to tell his father (Lei Zhou), a restaurant owner, that his dream is to be a cowboy and he plans to move to Texas to live that dream. Though the setting is a family restaurant in New York City with the two men seated in a booth facing each other, what ensues is less a dialogue and more a duel. This description is especially apt from Joe’s perspective, since he is decked out in cowboy gear literally from head to toe. It is a tense standoff, one that can be found in many an Asian American film while also nodding to the western genre. At the same time, such a standoff is also quite characteristic of coming-of-age films. In this case, it is between a Chinese father and son, spoken in English and Mandarin.

For Tian, who was raised in China as well as Texas, Cowboy Joe possesses a strong autobiographical streak. The film is, in many ways, her way of working through her own “standoff” with her parents regarding her ambitions to be a filmmaker. That she chose to translate her personal and familial situation into the figure of the cowboy, such a staunchly (white) American figure, is seemingly the film’s most striking element. But, in point of fact, the film’s most striking feature is instead how Tian plays with this cultural and cinematic figure to broaden (or subvert) the contexts in which it is usually found or represented.

After so many words are exchanged, Joe walks out of the restaurant. Presumably, the duel has concluded in a draw and nothing has changed. And, presumably, the rest of the film will dramatically probe Joe’s confrontation with a never-ending series of questions of “Who am I?” and his struggle to resolve them, with or without family support.

Not quite.

For things have changed. The father and son have communicated with each other, albeit anxiously and in disagreement. For Joe, he has expressed himself in a way that he had never done before to his father, given the heated debate that takes place between them. A draw? More like a dance with more steps to come, with the first difficult, awkward set of steps out of the way to get the body moving, somehow, wherever it desires to go, in life and on the screen.

Dance, indeed. The second part is where Tian discards any kind of predictable conceptualization of the cowboy and/or Asian American (films) when the camera follows Joe outside, walking the streets of New York City. Defeated? Perhaps. But also, strangely enough, delighted. As he continues to walk, always towards the camera, the one-foot-right-in-front-of-the-other becomes a soft-shoe shuffle here and a heel click there. Before one knows it, the rest of his body gets into it, too, so that the presumed walk-of-shame/-crisis following the talk-duel with his father transforms into a montage of be-bop singin’ in the sunshine.