Tears of the Black Tiger
Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Tears of the Black Tiger” belongs to a genre I have not yet encountered: the Sirkian Thai western homage.
Thai cinema seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance in America at the moment. Recent years have seen contemplative, Antonionian meditations like “Last Life in the Universe” as well as a series of hyperactive martial arts flicks like “Ong Bak” and “Dynamite Warrior.” “Tears of the Black Tiger” is certainly the most striking of these films, and points writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng toward larger fame. He has directed three more films since “Black Tiger,” but this is the only one to be released stateside so far.
The story: Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan) is an outlaw, riding the range. In flashbacks, we learn of a childhood affair he had with Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), which ran afoul due to Dum’s own inability to keep their date to elope (he was held up at a gunfight). Rumpoey has now grown up, and is betrothed to a local asshole policeman (Arawat Ruangvuth) who is cracking down on the local outlaws. Dum is now the legendary gunfighter Black Tiger, and broods a lot with his buddy Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon). There is eventually a showdown, of course, where some people are shot. Along the way there are gunfights, cannon battles, dated romantic music, romantic misunderstandings, and a lot of blood.
“Tears of the Black Tiger” is shot in a deliberately dated style: the film looks like it was developed by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, as the color is ultra-bright (pinks and blues and green hit you like an emergency burn eyewash), and the sets are all obviously phony (two of the charcters have a showdown at sunset, and the sunset itself is a backdrop painting). The music is chipper and zippy and infectious. The acting is all affected and over-the-top, and the melodramatic story is enough to make “Flash Gordon” shorts look subtle and restrained. It’s almost an exercise in style to rival Robert Rodriguez’ tribute to noir, “Sin City,” but with exuberant enthusiasm in place of the adolescent nihilism.
It would be tempting to call “Tears of the Black Tiger” a satire of Sirkian melodrama, and accuse it of uncaring irony. But Sasanatieng obviously loves American westerns and 1950s melodramas, and his love blasts off of the screen. True, “Black Tiger” points out some of the more ridiculous conceits of long-dead American film genres, but there’s too much joy in the making (despite the anachronistic gory violence that appears from time to time) to really support any irony. The film is unique and fun.