Nothing is too crazed, corny, or freakishly florid for Tears of the Black Tiger. The debut of writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng is a delightfully unabashed affair, conceived in such good, giddy spirits it might have been called Blissfully Yours. A flamboyantly kitsch mélange of genre anachronisms and new-school ‘tude, this super-duper meta-movie pays homage to a forgotten mode of Thai cinema, specifically the oeuvre of pioneering independent filmmaker Ratana Pestonji (1908–1970). Who? Huh? Say what and say how? Don’t sweat it, just dig: You need no primer in obscure Thai cinema to relish the Black Tiger effect, only eyes wide open and a taste for transcendental camp.
Tears of the Black Tiger plays like a radioactive western fused to mutant melodrama, with intimations of a spectacular musical, forever suppressed, buzzing just below the surface. And what a surface! Together with cinematographer Nattawut Kittikhun, Sasanatieng dyed his images through digital post-production, pushing colors to impossible hues of eccentric radiance. Electrifying from frame one, the story opens with a blast of nuclear fuchsia in the shape of Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), a well-to-do belle who awaits her bad-boy lover (Chartchai Ngamsan as Seua Dum) in a pagoda swamped in turquoise lily pads—a Monet by Warhol.
Staged against garishly artificial backdrops and expressionistic weather, full of silly talk and sillier mustaches, the plot diagrams the tragic love triangle among Rumpoey, the police captain she’s unhappily betrothed to (Arawat Ruangvuth), and Dun, her girlhood crush. The trajectory of these star-crossed lovers is narrated in flashback, as is the backstory of how Dun became the bandit Black Tiger, complete with slo-mo Peckinpah massacres and symphonic Morriconean freak-outs. One wit has dubbed the movie a “pad thai western.”
For all its super-charged exuberance, Black Tiger hums with low emotional wattage. The purposefully stilted dialogue is, well, stilted, and the cartoon mannerisms level human sentiment. Does Sasanatieng intend a cerebral tearjerker along the lines of Far From Heaven? If so, the payoff may be lost in translation. After all, he’s riffing on a domestic tradition barely remembered even at home. “I wanted to go back to something that had been lost,” he explained to the programmer and critic Tony Rayns, “to try to define and explore an authentically Thai style of filmmaking.” This yearning to recover a lost authenticity through self-reflexive artifice—a sort of synthetic sincerity—is a quintessential 21st-century mode. Or perhaps necessity. No matter how well Tears of the Black Tiger functions in dramatic terms, it makes for a totally hypnotic object.
And on several fronts, a representative one. Place this bright
Black Tiger in the company of 2046, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Three Times as evidence that the last gasp of celluloid exuberance draws its deepest breath in Asia. Color-wise, Western movies blew their wad 40 years ago. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966) asked Barnett Newman in a painting contemporary with the bold pop palate of Pierrot le Fou. Nowadays, who isn’t? Recent feats of Western cinematography tend to fall into the camps of technical one-upmanship (Children of Men), high-def ventures (Miami Vice), or both (Russian Ark), plus the odd lyrical wonder (L’Intrus) and tactile sublimity (The New World). Monochromatic refinement is privileged over supersaturation. Subtleties of texture trump brazen tonalities. Note how even the exquisite lensing of Marie Antoinette shies from anything too brash, shading its sentiments in powdery pastels, cashmere metallics, lilac, mint, and peach. Tasty but timid.
Enter the Tiger. Unembarrassed as it is, this radiant abstraction has good reason to feel chagrined by its belated arrival on American movie screens. Unveiled at the 2000 Vancouver International Film Festival, where it garnered a prize for best new director, Black Tiger went on to dazzle Cannes as the first Thai film to play in festival competition. Miramax was sufficiently impressed to pony up for the picture yet dim-witted enough to alter the ending, then shelved it, with characteristic stinginess, for five long years.
Magnolia Pictures has now acquired Black Tiger and booked it for a run at Film Forum. Better late than never, though it must be said that the novelty of the film’s hybrid cinematography would have made a bolder impression had it been unleashed half a decade ago. Moreover, the manner in which it haunts a bygone genre presages the meta-movie strategies of Far From Heaven, Kill Bill, A History of Violence, and The Good Shepherd. Turn-of-the-millennium aesthetics haven’t turned so fast as to render it yesterday’s news. Obsolete by design, this singular stunt and shock to the cinematic system is of and beyond its own time.