Chartchai NgamsanStella MalucchiSupakorn KitsuwonSombat Metanee
Tears of the Black Tiger
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Wisit Sasanatieng
Language: Thai
Country: Thailand
Keywords: Western
Actor: Chartchai Ngamsan, Suwinit Panjamawat, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Arawat Ruangvuth, Sombat Metanee, Pairoj Jaisingha, Naiyana Sheewanun, Kanchit Kwanpracha, Chamloen Sridang
Format: 110 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 24 September 2010
I didn't really like it. However that said, it's certainly brave and it's the first film from Thailand ever to be chosen for competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
I'll start by explaining the goals of the writer-director, Wisit Sasanatieng. It's a cultural throwback. It's paying homage to Thai cinema, especially the 1950s films of Rattana Pestonji and the 1960s-70s "bomb the mountain, burn the huts" action films. What's weird for a Westerner is that in some ways it all feels awfully familiar. Thailand used to make cowboy films, for instance. No, not some Thai cultural equivalent. They're doing the full John Wayne, with a gun at their side and a hanky around their neck. They look identical to their American counterparts, except not Caucasian. The whole movie's like that, in that it keeps reminding you of 1940s Hollywood films of some genre or other, but instead of being a direct reference to them, it's actually harking back to old Thai films that were ripping them off.
Sasanatieng's clearly aware of both sides of this. He borrows Ennio Morricone's music from For a Few Dollars More (1965), but much more important is that he prepared for this film by total immersion in his country's cinema. To quote the man himself: "Whenever the Film Archive screened an old film, I'd be there. Usually, I'd be the only one there. Most Thai audiences dislike Thai movies, especially the old ones, which they consider nam nao." The latter literally means "stinky water."
Anyway, Western critics have been busily comparing this film to those of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Douglas Sirk, John Woo, Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino. I can see why. The film would appear to be begging such comparisons... but to get too wrapped up in your non-Thai movie erudition would be to miss an important point.
That said, it wouldn't be wrong to see Sasanatieng as a Thailand Tarantino, except that Thai audiences didn't bother going to see this film. It flopped. What's important here, I think, is that despite all its stylistic experimentation, Sasanatieng's recreating a kind of film that I'm going to guess was: (a) lowbrow populist trash, and (b) also probably not great in the first place. If all other things are equal, good films get watched. I've noticed this. If I'm looking for two similar films, the hard-to-find one is likely to be the one that's rubbish. Anyway, it's all very well to appreciate Sasanatieng's homages and flourishes, but at the end of the day, his source material isn't arthouse fare. Does it have a good story? Does it have badass villains? Do you want to see the hero get the girl? These are important questions.
Unfortunately their answers are "no", "no" and "probably not".
The hero's okay. He's the strong, silent type and his name's Dum, except when people are calling him Black Tiger. He also doesn't think he's good enough for the beautiful rich girl, so he's all stand-offish and "I hope you're happy with your fiance". Apart from him, everyone's a tosser. The bad guys are losers. The policeman seems like a nice guy for a while, until he starts being a dick at his own wedding and at one point seems about to rape his new wife. She's hardly much better though, since she's letting herself get married to this guy who clearly loves her and not once has even made a pretence at treating him like a human being. She addresses him as "Captain" and stares off into the distance during their one-sided conversations. Okay, I get it. She's still in love with Dum. That still doesn't give her licence to be a bitch.
The tone isn't clear. It's not campy enough to be a comedy, but it's not being played straight enough for me to care about it. It's merely odd. There's a stupid gunfight and then a similarly retarded big finale which could have been hilarious if they'd been taken even further and become ludicrous, but aren't. I could have enjoyed this had it been a spoof, or alternatively I could have enjoyed it as honest trash. Unfortunately it's just not very good at the latter. Good trash isn't easy to make, you know.
That said, this is pretty much the definition of a cult film. If you're not an expert on Thai cinema (and probably even if you are), you won't have seen anything else like it. The colour scheme is like 1930s Technicolor, but worse. You'd think the set designer and make-up artists were only given children's crayons. A special effects award was given in Thailand for the colouring, which involved pink and green walls, lit for maximum saturation, before the footage got transferred from film to digital Betacam and then back again. There's a silent movie sequence. There's silly gore which isn't gory. There's a dwarf, a pseudo-vampire scene and some rocket launchers. One scene gets played before a gloriously hand-painted sky less convincing than Melies's special effects in A Voyage to the Moon. For an audience that's drunk or high, this might just look like the best movie ever.
Stylistically, half the time it's a cowboy movie and then the rest of the time it's some other kind of 1940s Hollywood fare. Rich Bitch in her house reminded me of 19th century costume dramas with emotionally constipated British ladies talking in clipped sentences on a staircase to Sir Laurence Olivier. There's occasionally some spaghetti Western, most obviously with the Morricone, and even a bit of dumb 1980s action movie with the rocket launchers. I was thinking Schwarzenegger.
One missed opportunity though was the songs, or so I felt at the time. Had this been a parody, you'd have had to make it a Singing Cowboy movie. (Yes, that was a real genre.) I thought we might be going there when Dum got out his harmonica, but no. Admittedly the film has lots of songs, but they're all incidental music and the characters on-screen never join in.
I also liked Thailand. Every so often we'll see something ravishingly beautiful, like the lily lake or the Buddhist ceremony.
It's worth mentioning the film's international treatment. The original is 110 minutes long, but the overseas version is significantly shorter. However even that's longer than the version that was recut, given a completely different ending and then buried for years by Miramax Films after buying the American rights. Harvey and Bob Weinstein used to do that all the time. They'd cut a film to shreds, supposedly because it otherwise wouldn't sell in America, then shelve the film in order to shift a potential money-loser to another fiscal year to protect their annual bonuses.
This was Sasanatieng's first film as a director and I'm not surprised. I want to like the film, but it's simply not good enough. The story's thin and the film wanted to be clearer about what it was doing. Tonally it's a mess. It'll throw out the world's most obvious cliches, but without trying to be funny. More fundamentally it's also a love story in which I didn't like the girl and a tragic ending would almost seem like the best thing for everyone. However that said, the film gets quite good for the flashback to their college days and if nothing else, it's wild to look at. It's a guaranteed cult film, anyway.