A melange of Western genre iconography where the pictorial design is all, Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah talai jone, 2000) is like a Jacques Demy musical shot in Thailand with a script by Sergio Leone. A super-stylized homage to old-time Westerns, the film's bizarreness, unfortunately, is its only real appeal. Though visually interesting throughout, the cleverness hangs on a screenplay that parrots Western movie iconography without really understanding it and, more importantly, beyond its look never offers a point-of-view uniquely its own.
Kwaidan on the range? A scene from Tears of the Black Tiger
The story is simple: Infamous though handsome gunslinger Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), better known as the "Black Tiger," is in love with the beautiful, virginal Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi**). Dum, however, is a peasant's son, and she is the daughter of the wealthy politician. Despite their love for one another, Rumpoey becomes engaged to Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), while Dum's despair leads him to a life of crime, working under notorious Bandit Fai (Sombat Metanee). All this comes to a head when, naturally, Kumjorn is captured by Fai's men, and the gangboss orders Dum to execute his lover's fiance.
All this plays out in set pieces patterned after Westerns ranging from the singing cowboy B's of the 1930s and '40s (there are several pleasant songs, all in Thai), to the later spaghettis of Leone and the violent revisionist Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Like Gene Autry's musical Westerns, the fairy tale setting incorporates 19th century gunslingers coexisting in a modern world that's vaguely 1940s/'50s though some contemporary aspects creep into the film also. Some vignettes -- and the film is notably episodic -- steal camera moves and mise-en-scene directly from Leone and others, while the graphic violence hovers somewhere between Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino.
The picture was shot on film, and then transferred to digital video, then back again to film for its theatrical run. During the video stage, the filmmakers used computers to tweak all the colors, resulting in an almost unique pallet where some colors are super-saturated while others are greatly deemphasized. In other scenes, notably a long flashback about a third of the way in, the film is treated in such a way to look something like an early-1930s two-strip Technicolor film, complete with scratches and splice-driven jump cuts. (Whether the film specifically emulates early Thai films, possibly even early Thai Westerns that might have existed is unknown to this reviewer.)
While all this is undeniably interesting to look at, what's the point? The Leone and Peckinpah films Tears of the Black Tiger so meticulously emulates were already reflective Westerns themselves, giving this Thai production's screenplay the feel of a photocopy of a photocopy. Incorporating the Thai settings and customs into all the Western iconography is intriguing but, unlike the somewhat similar Czech Western parody Lemonade Joe, the filmmakers' imagination seems to have ground to a halt after settling upon the film's visual scheme.
Video & Audio
Because of the film-to-video-back-to-film method in which it was made, Tears of the Black Tiger is extremely colorful but soft resolution-wise. Other than that, the 16:9 enhanced image (at 1.78:1) is very pleasing, and the film is offered in its original Thai and a not very good English-dubbed version, both in 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo, all very good mixes. The English subtitles are optional, and Spanish subtitles are also included. The film was shown in some markets trimmed of a reel or two, but this DVD offers the original 110-minute cut of the film.
Included is a 4:3 matted trailer for the U.S. release, and a 45-minute Making-Of Documentary, apparently culled from a Thai television special or morning show, that includes interviews with most of the key cast and crew members.
Western genre and Asian cinema fans will want to rent Tears of the Black Tiger for its uniqueness alone. Unfortunately its script isn't as clever as it is visually, but for some the pretty pictures will be enough. Rent It.
**Though she speaks Thai fluently, the actress is actually of Italian-Columbian descent.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is due out in June.