Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng revisited the cinema of his youth in Tears of the Black Tiger, a dizzy mash-up of postmodern genre picture and detached melodrama. The genre in this case is the western, which he tackles in full-on Sergio Leone style, including iconic shoot-outs, flamboyant stylization and a faux-Morricone score. There are signals throughout that we’re not meant to take much of this seriously. One of the villains has a pencil-thin mustache that appears to have been cut from construction paper and glued crookedly onto his face. (I felt like the filmmaker was sitting in the chair next to me, gently nudging me in my gut with his elbow every so often to make sure I knew he was making fun.)
The melodrama is a humdrum love story. Seua Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan) is the Black Tiger; Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) is the girl he’s loved since they were both children. Fate conspires to thwart their attempt at romance; Dum — kicked out of college for defending her honor — becomes an outlaw and Rumpoey eventually ends up engaged to a policeman. Dum’s efforts at avenging the murder of his father end up unraveling any last shot he might have had at a happily-ever-after story. And so it goes. Sasanatieng loosens up every now and again for a highly stylized gunfight, and there are certainly exploding squibs a-plenty. But mostly, this is straitjacketed theatrics characterized by mawkish sentiment and wooden line readings — essentially indulging a complete lack of panache. That it’s an homage to (or parody of) an old-school style of moviemaking doesn’t excuse it from its failure to swing of its own accord, a la the Kill Bill movies, which are similarly freighted with geeky movie-nerd baggage.
As tiring as I generally found all this, I have to admit there is something remarkable about the whole endeavor. Sasanatieng seems to not be aping the look of old Thai pictures as much as he is creating a snapshot of images that live in his memory — recreating the way those films looked when, as a boy, he saw old prints. He has added celluloid damage to the opening titles, for instance, and has pushed the film’s colors to extremes (extra-pinkish skin tones, greens that verge on blue) that suggest not just the style of a decades-old adventure, but the attendant fading. As aggressively gorgeous as the result can be, the tactic actually works against the picture on the big screen, where it’s clear the digital re-coloring process was primitive by today’s standards — it’s a shame there’s no commercial justification for letting Sasanatieng go back and do a proper digital intermediate. (This has been kept out of the U.S. market since its original release by Miramax which bought it and then, inexplicably, shelved it. Magnolia managed to pick it up last year and is releasing the original version rather than a reported Miramax re-edit.)
I now risk making this sound a lot more interesting than it is, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite the startling painted backdrop an early sequence is set against — a throwback to the brand of expressionism forwarded by movies like Kwaidan and Tokyo Drifter. (A little more of this kind of boldness would have gone a long way.) And there’s a moment of great visual poetry toward the end of the film, as Dum is peeping into a room where Rumpoey girds herself to marry a man she does not love. Dum begins to cry, his glossy eyes filling the frame as the tears scroll down his cheeks — and then Sasanatieng cuts to an exterior shot just as the rain begins to fall. It was enough to make me believe, for just a moment, that this film might be about something other than other films. C+