Tears of the Black Tiger Gleefully Juggles High And Low, Romance And Action
Movies from East and South Asia have long suffered from one of two stereotypes: They're either criticized as mindless action flicks or they're called out for being slow-paced and arty. And while many fine movies have suffered these caricatures, it's a relief to see one that's having as much as fun as Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng's genre-busting Tears of the Black Tiger. Made in 2000, Tears spent 2001 and 2002 in film festivals, but Miramax didn't give it a proper, albeit limited, U.S. run until last year. But its eye-popping visuals and gentle genre merger of westerns and melodramas makes it a welcome relief for a nation wearied by cable news graphics and bombastic moralists.
Seua Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan) is a poor peasant child when he falls in love with Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), who is, of course, from an upper-class family. Like many young couples in period pieces, they vow to stay true to each other, but time passes, and they grow apart. Ten years later, Dum re-emerges, this time as the Black Tiger, a Lone Ranger-style outlaw who rides a horse but carries automatic weapons. Tears' allegiances are legion--you can find traces of everything from Sam Peckinpah to Jean-Luc Godard to old Thai B-movies--but, thankfully, it doesn't privilege a coherent plot or sincere acting over reveling in its inventiveness.
In this way, Tears is able to make fun of East and South Asian cinema without forgetting the sincerity that lies at the core of many of these movies. The first time you see Thai cowboys or bright blue and pink rooms it's easy to pass it off as a joke. But Tears delights in its excesses so earnestly that you feel let in on the joke while knowing that Sasanatieng isn't really joking. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino had the heart of Wes Anderson and you'll get a sense for how Tears blends heartfelt emotion with action-movie irony.
Beyond its gentle humor and liberal cinematic allusions, Tears is a landmark in combining different filmmaking techniques and ideas in a way that is fresher than any of its admittedly dated, if still rich, source material. It's hard to name another movie that combines Matrix-y stop-motion gunfights with the sort of deliberately fake rear-projection images that were common before filmmakers were able to shoot on location. With Tears, every special effect, no matter how hokey, announces itself as such, a welcome break from CGI work that tries to stay hidden.
And while Tears might be the most vivid example of contemporary Thai cinema, Sasanatieng is only one of a number of filmmakers who've been able to produce genre/art house blends in recent years that are unlike movies made anywhere else. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, whose features include the gangster parody 6ixtynin9 and the more somber Last Life in the Universe, is less freewheeling than Sasanatieng, but just as funny. And Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose 2004 Tropical Malady and '06 Syndromes and a Century made many year-end Top 10 lists, refuses to distinguish between hyperrealist and fantasy styles in works that explore an emotional core--even when one of his main characters takes on the body of a tiger.
Together, the three directors have put out some of the most interesting movies of the last decade, although the work of Sasanatieng and Ratanaruang has sadly mostly been seen on DVD in the U.S. Tears of the Black Tiger reminds you what was so delightful about neo-westerns and melodramas of the 1950s and `60s, and how the emotional and visual possibilities of these movies have been forgotten by contemporary directors who spend more time creating special effects and devising flashy storytelling techniques than they do coming up with stories worth telling.
But what's most spectacular about Tears is that its greatest debts are to Thai cinema and culture. In interviews, Sasanatieng has noted that the greatest influence on his movie's look is a forgotten 1960s Thai director, Rattana Pestonji, who was the first independent filmmaker in Thailand and whose work Sasanatieng sought to copy as much as parody. What's most exciting about the more open reception to Thai and other Asian cinemas in recent years is that critics are now recognizing that all the genre movies they tossed off as schlock in the '60s and '70s, when they played alongside soft-core porn and blaxpoitation movies in decrepit picture palaces, have cultural value that we're only beginning to recognize. Tears of the Black Tiger is a window into a lost era of filmmaking and an invitation to a new one.