The Reeler


January 12, 2007

Tears of the Black Tiger

Campy melo-western Thais one on for genre dorks

A woman walks through the rain. The green grass is the exact same color as her umbrella. Music swells; a crane shot reaches to infinity and beyond. The woman pulls out a photograph and stares at her man's visage; a thunderclap crosscut to him standing in front of a building in full cowboy attire, ready to charge it with his faithful companion. Both the man and woman are Thai, but they're re-enacting the best of Douglas Sirk and Sergio Leone, seemingly oblivious to the incongruity. What's going on here?

Made in 2000 and only recently rescued and re-acquired from the Miramax shelf, Tears Of The Black Tiger is a technical exercise in the vein of Far From Heaven and The Good German, but director Wisit Sasanatieng's not really playing the same game: the look and plot are familiar, but the genre changes from scene to scene. Far From Heaven revised Sirk to integrate homosexuality; The Good German restored the brutality and Holocaust conspicuously missing from American World War II propaganda. Tears Of The Black Tiger, for the most part, plays a less revisionist hand, juxtaposing plausible Leone shoot-outs with tearful melodrama that's half Sirk and half Romeo & Juliet, with some other sources (Kwaidan, '50s juvenile delinquent dramas) thrown in for good measure. Beneath the elaborate layers of reference is a sensibility in line with '60s camp-mongers like the Kuchar brothers, whose lurid pastiches like Sins Of The Fleshapoids lovingly recreated B-movie trash with even more heightened colors and barely sublimated homosexuality. Like the Kuchars, Tears is so painstakingly meta it's almost avant-garde; unlike them, there seems little at stake beyond game-playing for its own sake.

Leone is the touchstone for Western segments featuring the Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan), the best gunman in Fai's (Sombat Medhanee, Guinness Book of Records champion for most prolific actor in the world) outlaw gang. Shootouts feature mandatory, screen-filling close-ups of eyes and comically improbable gunmanship. West is west -- 1880's garb, distant hideouts, epic gun battles with the law -- but it somehow co-exists peacefully with the 1950's, where romance unfolds with Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), whose upper-class roots makes her romance with the Tiger impossible. The disparate worlds are united by bright colors (there's so much pink here, even dying outlaws bleed it), and the genres are united thematically by their '50s film heritage, even if many of the cribbed Leone shots up the chronological ante. The colors aren't just Technicolor bright, they're alternately degraded and startling, reminiscent of watching old movies on overplayed VHS. (The negative was transferred to digital Betacam and worked over in that format.) The juxtapositions never really inform each other, though they play together harmoniously enough; the director's film nerd sensibility seems to have encouraged him to re-create rather than thinking about what it all might mean.

Slightly beyond camp, Tears Of The Black Tiger plays its melodramatic conventions out with an expression poised somewhere between deadpan and a grimace. "This movie is awful," came a murmur from the normally implacable critical corps 10 minutes in, just before the walk-outs began; without a healthy sense of patience and a film history background, it's hard to access the film's unique flavor. It might better fit as the final exam in Film History 101 -- with the grade dependent on the identification of at least five direct references -- than as a theatrical offering. The success of it all depends mostly on your preexisting interest (or lack thereof) in the genres being tackled; the sympathetically inclined should find plenty to grin at, if impatiently, and everyone else will be baffled.

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