Tears of the Black Tiger. – Review

Tears of the Black Tiger. – Review – movie review

Chuck Stephens

Quick — forget everything you know about Thai .cinema. Didn’t take long, did it? Strange enough during its heyday, and routinely gnarled by historical forces and haphazard twists of fate, Thailand’s film culture remains one of world cinema’s last uncharted realms. A complete archive of English-language writing on the subject could fit neatly in a slim file folder, and though there exists a small but lively community of knowledgeable film critics and passionate movie fans in Bangkok today, their enthusiasm is checked by the knowledge that, according to Dome Sukwong, head of film conservation at the ambitious but underfunded Thai Film Archive, some 70 percent of all Thai films were lost to official indifference and climate-accelerated decay long before anyone hoped to find them. Fortunately, renaissance in all areas of Thai filmmaking is currently underway: the quantity and quality of commercial films being made is on the rise, a small-scale experimental film and video community is beginning to blossom, and amidst a wide variety of glossy movie magazines, one scholarly journal, Nang Thai (Thai Film) — explicitly modeled on the periodical you now hold in your hands — educates and encourages Thai audiences to be smarter about film.

Ready to join them? Then here’s the first name you need to know in mainstream Thai cinema today: Wisit Sasanatieng. (Don’t sprain your tongue: following Thai custom, it’s perfectly correct to refer to Sasanatieng, formally or informally, by his given name alone — it’s pronounced “We-sit.”)

The writer of two of the highest-grossing films in Thai history — Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters and Nang Nak, both directed by Nonzee Nimibutr — and a successful director of television commercials, Wisit is also one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic film scholar-fanatics in Bangkok. That’s hardly an essential resume boost for a Thai filmmaker, for whom an ability to ape the average Hong Kong action flick would suffice, but it may help to explain Wisit’s current dilemma. His directorial debut, the sumptuous and indelibly eccentric cowboy melodrama Tears of the Black Tiger (the film’s Thai title, Fa Talai Jone, translates as Heaven Strikes the Thief) — released in Bangkok last October, and now headed to Cannes — proved to be both current Thai film’s biggest commercial flop and greatest artistic success. Had Guy Maddin directed Heavens Gate, no stranger a concatenation of hyperbolic horse-operatics and ersatz print-decay could have resulted.

Photographed — or rather post-produced, via telecine — in an irradiated palette of seemingly hand-tinted lilacs and fuchsias, Tears of the Black Tiger looks a tot like the fulfillment of Ted Turner’s long-defeated dream to colorize the classics, even if its schematic storyline (set in the Fifties) couldn’t be more black-and-white. Rumpoey, the high-society daughter of a low-power politician, has been in love with Dum, the son of a rural village chief, ever since the summer day, ten years past, when, while defending her honor against a trio of local punks, he was left with a crescent moon-shaped scar on his forehead. Forbidden to associate further, Rumpoey (played by Italian-born but Bangkok-raised fashion model Stella Martucci) and Dum (hunky newcomer Chartchai Ngamsan) briefly reunite a decade later Their rekindled passion is soon threatened by Rumpoey’s arranged betrothal to an oily army captain, and Dum’s vengeful decision to transform himself into the lightning-triggered “Black Tiger,” the better to infiltrate the gang of insurgent bandits who murdered his father.

A sustained riff on the impoverished excesses of Holly- and Bollywood-inflected mid-century Siamese filmmaking, when compositional frontality reigned and the phrase “reverse angle” (as well as the philosophy behind it) was apparently lost in translation, Tears of the Black Tiger was born of Wisit’s desire to locate the historical essence of a truly Thai cinema. The look and feel of his film isn’t based just on movies, mind you, but on Thai film’s theatrical roots (from the musical and gestural mannerisms of Likay performance, mainly) and its florid advertising artifacts (hand-painted movie posters and lobby cards). There’s also ample evidence of Seventies Thai cinema’s fateful alien encounter with the spaghetti cinema of Sergio Leone. The result is a hybrid of hybrids. At once a perfectly traditional (and hilariously cliched) Thai romance about lovers corralled by class difference, as well as a pad thai Western where cowboys covet machine guns and swear blood oaths to one another under the shadow of an impassive Buddha, Tears of the Black Tiger doesn’t just succeed as a modernist commentary on the sorry physical state of the nation’s rapidly deteriorating film heritage. It’s also an oddly nostalgic projection of what Thai filmmaking has the potential to become.

“Whenever the Film Archive screened an old film,” Wisit admitted at the Vancouver Film Festival last fall, “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 [“stinky water,” i.e., stagnant and cliched]. But what I saw in them was a way to stay tree to the spirit of those old styles of Thai filmmaking, as well as a way to make them new again. And none of the older generation of filmmakers impressed me more than Rattana Pestonji.”

Fittingly enough, Rattana, the leading Thai filmmaker of the Fifties, was himself something of a hybrid: bom to Iranian parents and educated in England, he produced and directed a series of color-coded but at first blush creakily archaic melodramas on a limited assortment of minimalist sets. As it turns out, Rattana’s films were in fact satires of still more archaic and impoverished Thai films of an even earlier generation; no wonder Wisit took note. “For me, Rattana is our greatest filmmaker,” admits Wisit, who funded his passion for film history by convincing Wrangler jeans to finance a television ad that served as the stylistic trial mn for his film’s vibrant visual design. “I knew all along that I wanted Tears of the Black Tiger to be more than just an old-fashioned film. And the first thing I knew was that the action scenes would have to be a lot faster and more cleverly choreographed than they were in the old days.”

Wisit’s talking about the actions of his cartoon cowboys, of course, but, were he a less modest man, he might well be describing the aesthetic tack that he took with Tears of the Black Tiger itself. He may not be the quickest box-office draw in the East just yet, but from the point of view of a newly emerging type of Thai film culture still very much in need of fresh and homegrown aesthetic heroes, Wisit Sasanatieng sits taller in the saddle than anyone else in town.

Chuck Stephens’ other favorite recent Thai film is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s strange documentary about global narrative techniques and local migratory patterns, Mysterious Object at Noon.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group