There has been a long established two-way street between Hollywood and Asian cinema. The venerable Akira Kurosawa took the inspiration for many of his films from the epic features of John Ford, and Hollywood filmmakers from Clint Eastwood to George Lucas have studied hard at the school of Kurosawa. The Thai film “Tears of the Black Tiger” takes this artistic transaction and expresses it with a severely fractured view. Basically a send up of Spaghetti Westerns and ’50s Thai and Bollywood cinema, “Tears” pokes fun at the various genres by presenting their well-worn conventions at face value.
The story is as old as film itself. As children, Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), a peasant, and Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi, last seen in “Angulimala”), whose rich family Dum’s family works for, fell in love. Times being what they were, their parents kept them apart and Rumpoey is eventually betrothed to the clean-cut police chief. Of course, Rumpoey still loves Dum and Dum, now a bandit, is intent on crashing the wedding. Shakespeare would be proud.
Sure, the premise sounds hackneyed, but one look at the movie and it becomes abundantly clear that this is exactly the point. Everything about the film is done for effect. The incongruous costumes look like they came from the reject bins at the Universal back lot where they were colored by Andy Warhol. The main villain has a painted on moustache complimented by an Elvis pompadour and a faux sinister laugh. The effect is capped off by the purposely distorted music, which sounds like a Victrola playing a badly warped platter.
Even the little details are sent ups of other movies. Each time a group of men are killed during one of the film’s many gun battles, they are not shot in the middle of active combat, but rather lined up and mowed down in order from left to right. Also, six-shooters are fired repeatedly without ever needing to be reloaded.
Stylistically, director Wisit Sasanatieng is channeling the Sergio Leone school of westerns, but it’s all done with a knowing wink and surrealist flair. Many of Leone’s signature touches (extreme close ups, one-on-one stand offs, off kilter camera angles) are in evidence. Sasanatieng even brazenly lifts several sequences and soundtrack snippets directly from “Once Upon a Time in The West” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, and even his main characters are more or less direct transplants from those Leone films. The garish Day-Glo pastel color schemes, ’50s Bollywood style music, outlandish characters and shocking violence will also remind viewers of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s notoriously freakish western “El Topo.”
Unfortunately it’s difficult to sustain a movie on style alone, and it’s doubly hard to sustain parody. “Tears of the Black Tiger” is thus pulling double duty and quickly buckles under the weight of the tasks. The characters, wacky as they may be, generate no sympathy and don’t provide a focal point for the viewer. The acting style calls for the actors to pose rather than inhabit the screen, so everything feels stilted and artificial. The film’s story is woefully undeveloped, existing solely to provide dialogue.
The middle section in particular, which explores the vintage melodrama theme via flashbacks, drags the film down as Dum and Rumpoey’s lifelong courtship is rolled out with deliberate tedium. On top of that, the cartoonish and over the top violence doesn’t completely fit within the established demeanor of the film. We’re not just talking about a high body count, but also fountains of blood that spurt forth from bullet wounds and heads exploding when shot, sending gibs and gore everywhere. The overall lighthearted nature of the film doesn’t jive with such mean spirited carnage.
Mixing the Leone style with Peckinpah-esque violence and Mehboob Khan levels of epic melodrama, “Tears of the Black Tiger” is ultimately a film that’s all dressed up with nowhere to go. It’s certainly a looker thanks to the LSD inspired color scheme and humorously phony backdrop, but the film exists solely to be a kitschy pastiche, the novelty of which wears off long before the final credits roll.
Wisit Sasanatieng (director) / Wisit Sasanatieng (screenplay)
CAST: Chartchai Ngamsan …. Black Tiger
Suwinit Panjamawat …. Dum
Stella Malucchi …. Rumpoey
Supakorn Kitsuwon …. Mahesuan