Lachrymose in Technicolor: Tears
Fah talai jone, the original Thai title, doesn't mean anything like "Tears of the Black Tiger." But the title is probably easiest thing to translate about the whole endeavor. This was released in Thailand in 2000 and made the festival circuit (including Cannes) for a few years. The film was later purchased by Miramax, which cut the film considerably, changed the ending, then shelved it entirely. As is becoming increasingly typical, it was Magnolia to the rescue and a limited release in the US.
About the only thing that I can tell you about Wisit Sasanatieng is that he definitely did not direct King Arthur, but then again, he's not Spanish. (Incidentally, my sister-in-law recently asked me a tricky question: Was King Arthur, in fact, worse than, as she put it "that movie with Richard Gere as Lancelot." After thinking about it for a moment, I have decided that yes, yes it is. And I saw First Knight IN THE THEATER, people.) Likewise, I think my exposure to Thai cinema is limited to my two beloved Tony Jaa films.
The Village Voice seems to indicate that TotBT is hearkening back to the style of Thai independent filmmaker Ratana Pestonji. I really don't know what that means, but I am reassured that I can "just dig." I am relieved, likewise, to note that VV is not, like many other wrong-headed and possibly color-blind reviewers, referring to the color palette of the movie as "pastel." You want pastels, go to Latin America. Thailand is apparently your go-to nation for nuclear turquoise, pink, and red. The Voice reviewer is only referring to the opening piece of scenery when he uses the phrase "Monet by Warhol," but the metaphor extends handily.
In other marketing shortcomings, Tears of the Black Tiger is billed variously as a "Western," "A Parody of Westerns," and "An Homage to Westerns." Each of those is perfectly true and each falls short. In addition to the Western framework, Sasanatieng is working within the bounds of Teenage Exploitation/Scare movies, flat-out Gangster movies, Gross-Out Ultraviolent movies, and the tried and true Tearjerker tradition.
The central focus is the love story of Rumpoey and Dum (The Black Tiger, although the rest of his gang are also "tigers"). The two meet in childhood: She is the daughter of a well-to-do regional official; he is the son of a peasant, although he's some kind of "district chief" peasant, for what that's worth. Despite the fact that she suffers from a severe case of Early Buttercup syndrome (fetch that pitcher yourself, you snotty little brat), Dum falls in love with her. She reciprocates when he tells her a tragic romance story about the "Sala Awaiting the Maiden," and then defends her honor and is severely punished for it.
Rumpoey and her family leave the countryside for Bangkok, and the lovers do not meet again until both are in college. Dum initially denies that he knows Rumpoey, presumably because his scars remind him what happens to peasant boys who aspire to high-class girls. However, he reveals his true identity when, once again, her honor is threatened. This time, he is expelled from college for brawling. Rumpoey takes him to a beach as a consolation prize and they affirm their love for one another. In vague (and probably poorly subtitled) terms, they promise to pursue their relationship, and if Rumpoey's father will not assent to their marriage, the Sala will no longer be Awaiting the Maiden, and they'll run away together.
When Dum returns home, however, he finds that his entire family has been slaughtered by someone in the neighborhood who is jealous of Dum's father's less-scabby-than-thou status and aspires to be district chief peasant. Dum takes his father's rifle and rushes off to avenge his father's murder. in media bloodbath, Dum is intercepted by Fai who—and this is so funny, you'll never believe it—is also out to avenge Dum's father's death, because Dum's father once saved Fai's life.
Dum, naturally, joins Fai's gang of tigers and becomes his number-one gun, because he mystically cannot miss. This does not endear Dum to Mahesuan, former number-one gun of Fai. In fact, Mahesuan's hide eventually gets chapped enough that he seeks out Dum and challenges him to a draw. Dum only accepts when Mahesuan snatches a memento from Rumpoey out of his hand. The two stare one another down and, eventually, Dum gets off about eleventy million shots before Mahesuan can remember what a trigger is. However, this ends up making them fast friends (and not even fast Thai Zombie friends), because Dum has, in fact, shot up the killer snake that was just about to fall on Mahesuan's head!The two head off to a dilapidated Buddhist temple, drink one another's blood (no, really), and have a psychadelic freakout after swearing life-long allegiance to one another.
Their timing couldn't have been worse, though, because Fai's gang has been outed by an informer. A battalion of police, led by Rumpoey's new fiancé, Captain Kumjorn. (I am linearizing because I love, but that has its downsides, too. Basically, Dum has missed his meeting with Rumpoey at the Sala, quite possibly because he has no way of knowing when the hell her father might've nixed their marriage and what the hell is that bitch's problem anyway? Is he's already a psychadelic peasant cowboy gangster and now he's supposed to be a goddamned telepath? Sheesh. Chycks. Anyhoo, Rumpoey is engaged to Kumjorn because her father has decided that Kumjorn is a good match.)
Because of their hangovers, Dum and Mahesuan miss all the killing off of the comic relief and only arrive just in time with their crates of ammo and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers (come on, like I'd make that up. If I were making that up, it would have been atlatls or something). And, no, I don't know where the crates of ammo, etc., came from or why they might have toted those out to the temple for their male-bonding ritual. I suspect we may have been the victims of some of the 6 remaining minutes of missing footage there. Anyway, they save the day for Fai and all but Kumjorn are killed.
Fai tells Dum to go finish off Kumjorn and then no one who knows the location of their hideout will remain alive. Dum accedes to Kumjorn's request for a little dignity and unties him. Kumjorn decides to push his luck and to ask Dum if he, personally, will inform Rumpoey of his death (of course, he just calls her his fianceé). He pulls out her picture and Dum is Dumstruck (c'mon, you'd have done it, too). Hearing the gunshots and assuming that Dum has done his duty, Mahesuan saunters in to find that Kumjorn has shot his way out of the building (a Kumjorn-sized hole with three shots of a pistol—not too shabby) and Dum has a knife in his chest. Because we haven't seen what happened, we don't know if Kumjorn is a scrappy, resourceful little Thai policeman or Dum is particularly butch in the "make it look convincing" facets of his plans. Alas, we are never really to know.
Kumjorn, it seems, will live to marry Rumpoey. Rumpoey, however, has determined that she will not live to marry Kumjorn. When her Captain returns to her and she learns that Dum has spared Kumjorn's life, she decides to take her own (thinking, no doubt, of the original Maiden in the story who kills herself when she realizes that she can't be with her humble woodcutter, Lawks!). The nurse derails her plans for picturesque suicide, and it seems as if the wedding will go on.
Fai has no objections to the wedding happening: In fact, it provides him the ideal opportunity to take out a substantial portion of the local constabulary. Dum reflexively objects to the plan (on account of incomprehensible and durable attachment to Rumpoey), and poorly covers by saying that it's too dangerous. Fai cares not and sense Dum, Mahesuan, and a few tigers out to plan the ambush. Dum slinks off to play a little Morrissey on his harmonica (which happens to be inscribed with Rumpoeys' name, because her narcissism interferes with her grasp of things like "gifts" and "monograms"). He's deep into "Girlfriend in a Coma" when Mahesuan calls for help. The Tigers have turned on Fai and have the loyal Mahesuan at gunpoint. Dum drops his gun to save his blood-brother's life and oh what's this? Could it be a trap?!
Fai was not, apparently, a fan of Dum's screw up, reluctance to ambush, or his cover story and has ordered him killed. Mahesuan and Dum, naturally, end up in a very talky gunfight. Mahesuan assures Dum that he's not only going to ambush Rumpoey's wedding, he's then going to take Herself as his wife. This, unsurprisingly, ends badly with Mahesuan's shot to Dum's chest throwing Dum enough off balance that he shoots a hole in the brim of Mahesuan's hat, rather than through his skull. Can our hero have missed for the very first time?! Can this be the end of Dum?
Not bloody likely. Dum shows up at the prewedding festivities dressed as Tom Wolfe to wish them both happiness and to warn Kumjorn of the impending ambush. Naturally, he's chased out by gunfire for his trouble. At the wedding (or possibly at the reception), Kumjorn finally picks up on the fact that Rumpoey is just not into him just before she turns her metaphorical kicking of his testicles into literal kicking of same. He is a real student of the human fuckin' condition, is our Kumjorn. Although he's been a pretty good guy (and one who seems well and truly smitten with Rumpoey) up until this point, Kumjorn looks into a grim future full of cock-blocking and does a heel turn. He decides that he's ok not having Rumpoey's heart, because he has her body.
It's not clear if there is having of any kind, though, because all Rumpoey seems to have suffered is a tasteful tear in the shoulder of her highly complicated pink dress when we cut back and Kumjorn appears to be getting re-dressed. The Tigers finally make their move and all the police are drunk. Kumjorn very nearly buys it, but is saved by the timely bayonet of his new father-in-law.
Surely we have all forgotten about Kumjorn's persistent aliveness while Mahesuan and Dum are having their standoff (he's been hiding in the attic in his wonderful ice cream suit, being annoyed by rats and, no doubt longing for the harmonica that saved his life by taking the chest bullet). Mahesuan puts Rumpoey down on the ground and they have another long staredown. Nature has obliged the melodrama of it all by providing a thunderstorm to accompany the whole affair. As Dum and Mahesuan each wait for the other to blink, a drop of rain runs down the crown of Mahesuan's hat, through the hole previously left by Dum, and into his eye. He blinks frantically and Dum guns him down, his bullet, spiritually, if not literally, finding its mark at last.
Rumpoey, who is still, confusingly, unconscious from a blow to the stomach, gets picked up once again, this time by Dum. But who could possibly piss in our lovers' Cheerios now? Oh, that's right, Kumjorn is still alive and has apparently been wandering the grounds trying to find the source of the yelling and the gunfire, the only noise in the whole damned province, given that most everyone else is dead. He instructs Dum to put Rumpoey down. This, for whatever reason, rouses her, and she calls for Dum. Dum, although seemingly resigned to losing Rumpoey in the end, tragically decides to go for the grand symbolic gesture by handing Rumpoey's picture back to Kumjorn. As he reaches for it, Kumjorn fires. Dum has already redeemed his miraculous-save-by-item-in-breast-pocket coupon and dies in Rumpoey's arms.
The goofy story is pretty uniformly entertaining, thanks to the cast. Chartchai Ngamsan (left in that picture) is admirably suited to pretty brooding and dead-eyed detachment from the violence in which he's steeped. Supakorn Kitsuwon swaggers and blusters and is not at all hindered in his moustache-twirling by the pencil-thin, migratory, uneven nature of said pasted-on facial hair. Stella Malucchi is voluptuous and picturesque, and although it initially seems that she might have been cast entirely on the merits of her lips and eyebrows, she's got a lot more going on than just the absolutely right look. Veteran Thai actor Sombat Methanee is creepily avuncular in Dum's origin story, which is enough of a contrast to his sleaze leading up to it (remember, nonlinear!) that it's a pleasant surprise to find that Dum's decision to join the gang is not wholly unbelievable. Arawat Ruangvuth is so believable as the dull-but-forthright police captain that his turn for the worse at the end provides a real frisson of fear and excitement.
Stylistically, the absurdity is mostly a good time. The bright colors are actually quite lovely and effective, for the most part and hardly ever made me think of Vegas, which is more than I can say for The Curse of the Golden Flower. The colors were used to funny effect in tandem with a rear projection gag, too: Rumpoey and Dum are in a fancy car with a brightly colored interior. Behind and to the side of them, Bangkok is suddenly seen in black-and-white as they "drive by." Similarly, the lurid colors work to infuse the male-bonding psychadelic cowboy trip with that added boost of absurdity.
For the most part, I enjoyed the genre mishmash, too, although the flashback-based narrative sometimes interfered with the pacing of how these were interspersed. For example, the long Teeange Exploitation/Weepy interlude in Bangkok pretty much made me forget that there were any Western elements at all; thus it was jarring to go from that to gangster, and back to Western.
A lot of the over-the-top homage/parody techniques also worked handily. The ultra-flat, against-a-white-wall close ups intercut haphazardly with long two shots was a nice fond, poke at some of the techniques that all these genres have in common. The obviously-fake-backdrop gag was gone to a few times too frequently.
Actually, upon thinking about it, it's not the frequency that bothered, but the fact that the first time the device was used, it was brilliantly carried off: I believe it's after Dum has pulled off his first trick-shot and left Mahesuan saying "I have a plan" (I assume that the subtitle just sucks and he was really saying "I have an appointment" or something along those lines). Text rolls on the screen (maybe even the credits) on a sunset-over-an-open-field backdrop. For a backdrop of this type, it's not so bad, but then Dum rides from right to left across, rather than toward the camera, and it's instantly revealed that there's no depth at all to the set. I laughed out loud at that, but got pretty impatient later at the use of a similar technique in the first would-be gunfight between Dum and Mahesuan (Although Mahesuan walking-in-place backwards was kind of funny.)
The complete refusal to settle on any kind of time period was a lot of fun, too. It allowed for Rumpoey and her father to arrive by 19th-century colonial train and for all the cowboy gangsters to use a ridiculously varied array of guns and ammunition, ranging from very old rifles to grenades, WWI-era pistols, and the aforementioned rocket launchers. (Everybody loves a rocket launcher!)
I'm a gore gal, and this movie certainly delivers. The blood reaches Kurosawa levels of both quantity and impressive fluid dynamics. But although Sasanatieng clearly admires Kurosawa's commitment to the sanguinity index, he also seems to think that Akira just didn't go far enough, and has therefore added a gobbet index. In fact, if Kurosawa is anywhere these days, I can just picture him slapping his thigh and wishing he'd thought of it. We see disembodied arms, brains before and after explosion, shattered teeth, and in perhaps the sequence that established the Here-And-No-Farther Boundary for the entire movie, a policeman propelled up a flight of stairs and into a wall by a rocket that then explodes, sending his extremities to the four cardinal directions.
The absurdity and pastiche of Tears of the Black Tiger are already inviting comparisons to Stephen Chow's work (e.g., Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer). In fairness to Sasanatieng, his work is something different entirely, I think, as he is really intending to honor and parody these genres by completely decontextualizing them in the story, but faithfully employing the techniques dear to them. He doesn't make me laugh nearly as much as Chow does, but then again, he's not always trying to. Tears of the Black Tiger is absolutely fun and stands up to a fair amount of ex post facto dissection, which makes it a score in my book.