First Cow’s Orion Lee on onscreen male friendships

Harry and Lloyd, Woody and Buzz, and Troy and Abed. There is no shortage of male friendships on screen but few – if any – are like Cookie and King-Lu, the leads in First Cow.

Directed by Kelly Reichardt, First Cow bears the beloved indie director’s trademark stoicism and taciturn characters and centres its story on two unlikely friends in 1820 frontier Oregon.

Both men are from somewhere else – Cookie (John Magaro) from the US east coast and King-Lu (Orion Lee) from China – but here they meet, unwittingly in the woods while King-Lu is hiding in Cookie’s tent from a group of Russians.

It’s a brief interlude and it’s not until their reunion in a makeshift town, the kind with dirt-floored wooden shacks dotted around a grand mansion owned by the richie-rich Chief Factor (a sort of trader), that their friendship starts to take root.

They bond over their ambitions for better lives with King-Lu’s enterprising mind hatching a plan to make use of Cookie’s baking skills with milk stolen from the region’s only dairy cow, belonging to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones).

The low-key milk heist is the story, but the core of the movie is the quiet friendship between the two men. It’s not the usual flash-bang fiery screen friendship with fast quips, angst, eventual blows and then dramatic gestures. It’s also a friendship of equals in a place and at a time when getting one-up over someone else is how you “conquer”.

“It’s rare to see two friends sit down and talk and listen to each other with that sort of openness,” Lee told news.com.au. “Just chatting about inconsequential things, but it captures that friendship when they’re listening, a sort of quiet joy from each other’s company. It’s like, ‘I’m so happy that I’m here, not alone by myself’.

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“The stories we’ve historically told have a certain view of male friendship or mateship. Previously that depiction has been, a lot of times, very toxic or two guys can’t be around each other unless they’re punching each other.

“The problem is, then unconsciously, we feel, ‘Well, that’s the right way and if I’m not that way, then I’m in the wrong.’”

The friendship between First Cow’s Cookie and King-Lu slowly develops – which is how it happens for most people, Lee said – and the rhythm of Reichardt’s dialogue, co-written with Jonathan Raymond, is leisurely paced, allowing the relationship to find its grooves before carefully dialling up the urgency.

As Lee described it, it’s a journey, right up to the end and the power of that final scene.

“You feel that loss, but you cannot point to a single moment and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that moment, that’s it, that’s why I miss this person.’ That’s the journey. The film goes along this journey and you don’t feel like you’re particularly taken by emotion but then the journey ends and you’re like, ‘I will miss this.’”

Lee, like King-Lu, has travelled through many lands to get to where he is in Western Australia.

The actor was born in Hong Kong before moving to Malaysia, where his parents are from. Then the family migrated to WA where Lee went to high school and university and spent 10 years working in finance.

He had an innate curiosity about different aspects of life, even during his studies and when he started working. To satiate that appetite, Lee frequently took classes in various subjects, ranging from radio journalism and psychology to Swedish massage and bonsai.

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But it was drama that hooked him, and he took another class and another class until he gave himself a year to break into the industry, eventually landing a spot at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

That led to a few years in the UK, where he gained an agent and roles in TV shows including White Dragon, Chimera and Critical and bit parts in Justice League and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“The industry is a tough one, but I’ve had enough wins to keep thinking, ‘I should keep going.’ Life happens to you at the pace it happens, and you just keep going.”

Lee’s softly spoken, almost philosophical assessment of his career makes him particularly suited to a minimalist Reichardt film. Her body of work also includes Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women.

He remembered seeing her thriller Night Moves in a cinema and being floored by it.

When he discovered he was being considered for the role of King-Lu, he was chuffed. Not only was First Cow critically beloved, Lee was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, although he lost to eventual Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya.

Even though the shoot for First Cow was punishing – it was so cold that when water seeped into the bottom of the canoe his character was being rowed in, by the time it reached shore, the water had turned into sheets of ice – he found the experience rewarding.

The film’s emphasis on kindness struck a chord with locked-down audiences in the US and UK when it was released there earlier, and Lee understood why First Cow’s slower pace resonated.

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“Life is full of slow, quiet moments. Sometimes the nature of the media, it’s like ‘bang, bang, bang’. As if, if you’re not doing something now, what is your life? If you’re not achieving, if you’re not taking down a bank or falling in love with a supermodel or winning the Super Bowl – then what is your life?

“This film is about the deeper things, which is so much more nourishing to the soul. I guess people connected with that.”

Already from his exposure in First Cow – while Reichardt is not well-known to blockbuster audiences, she is respected by the industry and cinephiles – Lee has booked another job, a voiceover for an animation, although he can’t reveal more.

But he’s also copacetic if First Cow doesn’t turbocharge his career. He’s moving soon to Sydney, where most of his family relocated to from WA, and he said his primary role is to be a husband and father.

“Even if I never work again, I will be happy with having done that and be happy with what I’m doing now.

“The future, to a certain extent, has to take care of itself. Whether I get another job or not is up to other people. If I placed my happiness in that, then my happiness is being placed in the hands of other people.

“I really can’t ask for more, I’m just happy with what I’ve got.”

First Cow is in cinemas now

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