Updated: Aug 26, 2019
by: PRINDIE Senior Programmer ALEX KIM
Alex is a mathematics major at Princeton University, where he has also studied film theory and screenplay writing.
When Cowboy Joe’s eponymous protagonist leaves his father’s restaurant (after the argument around which the first half of the film revolves), he is heartbroken, frustrated, a mess of jumbled emotions—wanting to live his own life; somewhat paradoxically, wanting his father to support him in that decision; wanting to live the American dream, but unsure whether his conception of that dream is real enough to live, and unsure whether his father’s conception of that dream is good enough to want to.
Cowboy Joe wears a hat and boots a ranch hand might wear and announces to his father that he plans to move to Texas to become a real cowboy. He wants to be “free.” His conception of the American dream is idealistic and naïve, but his earnestness and confusion and desire to find his own place amidst conflicting advice and lifestyles make him achingly real, and—at least to me—relatable. And I found his father, who dismisses Joe’s declaration and tells him he needs to get back to work, real and relatable too.
When their argument starts in earnest, Cowboy Joe speaks his side only in English. His father speaks his side only in Chinese. They comprehend each other, but neither are willing to cross the language/ideology barrier to understand each other. And even when, finally, the language barrier is crossed, it is only to solidify the ideology one. It is to dig their heels in further. It’s painful to watch, and beautifully executed by Conder Shou and Lei Zhou, who play Cowboy Joe and his father, respectively. The camerawork during these scenes is economical and powerful. It keeps us focused on the actors’ faces. And sometimes, at key moments, it withholds our view of the face we expect to see.
And then the film moves into its second half. Without giving too much away, it’s moving and joyous to watch, a perfect cinematic encapsulation of freedom even while the whole time we’re kept aware of the tough decisions that lie ahead for Cowboy Joe.
From the beginning we recognize that Cowboy Joe knows America as the country behind the near-mythic archetype of the cowboy. But as the film goes on, we learn that he also knows it as the America of New York City and of jazz, which is a very different aspect of the “American Dream.” The broadness of that Dream gives Cowboy Joe hope, but in its own way it frightens him. It is too easy to be lost in the Dream’s complexities. His father, after all, despite making the declaration that “dreams are for kids,” occupies a place in the American Dream too, by owning a restaurant in New York. In the end, Jingjing Tian found her way to making this wonderful film, and we hope that Cowboy Joe finds a way to his own dream, too.