In Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, which streams on Mubi, two men in 1820s America forge a mutually dependent relationship. Otis (John Magaro) is a culinary man: he cooks and forages for food for the band of men he roams with – in fact, the first time we meet him, he's picking mushrooms for the troupe. He meets King-lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, fluent in English, who is on the run. Otis gives King-lu shelter – which may be an unusual move for a white man two hundred years ago, but Otis is gentle and good-natured. Magaro's face, possessing a kind of sweet beauty, is instantly sympathetic. He is unlike the rest of the men in his group, who are prone to brawling at the drop of a hat. King-lu is more practical. But the two of them recognise something in each other and when they meet again later, they begin living together, forming a social and economic partnership.
For the twenty-first century viewer, the question is whether Otis and King-lu are gay, whether theirs is a romantic relationship. Reichardt makes nothing explicit (one could argue that such feelings could not be explicit in the times), and this is not the point of her film, but to me, it was quite clear. For instance, once the two men begin to live together, they appear to quite naturally slip into traditional roles of 'husband' and 'wife'. Otis – the 'wife' – is the cook: he can make cookies (he's even called Cookie) and also a kind of bread known as 'oily cakes'. King-lu – the 'husband' – is in charge of the finances and suggests that Otis make the oily cakes to sell at the market. Otis reluctantly agrees, and they decide to steal milk from the titular cow, who belongs to the Chief Factor. Once again, here, they assume traditional male/female roles, as Otis milks the cow and King-lu keeps watch from a tree. Otis is very kind to the cow: he talks to her, condoling the loss of her 'husband', praising her as he takes her milk.
But like any real homosexual relationship, it's ultimately reductive to try to confine it to heteronormative roles. Otis and King-lu both must learn to fend for themselves in the jungle. (As King-lu says, "men like us have to make our own way." Is he referring to his sexuality?) Otis can fish, while King-lu either can't or doesn't, waiting instead on the riverbank. In the climax, as they are being chased by Factor's men, King-lu, the stronger one, leaps into the river and swims. But Otis is afraid to jump, so he hides. The two are separated. Otis roams through the jungle, looking for King-lu, even getting injured in the process. When they eventually find each other again, it's cathartic.
First Cow opens in the present day, when a young woman finds Otis and King-lu's skeletons, lying side by side. They look like lovers placed next to each other. And the film that follows is indeed a love story: there's a meet-cute, various separations, a reliance on one another, villains who threaten to tear them apart, and an eventual union – in death. I was in no doubt that Otis and King-lu loved one another, even if they themselves never said so. After all, men who loved men in the 1800s may not have been able to express their feelings openly, but their relationships were no less fulfilling. It is Reichardt's great achievement that this comes through in First Cow.