"People do not go to the movies to think. They go to the movies to feel."--Tsui Hark
I'm not entirely sure of where to begin when it comes to writing about Tears of the Black Tiger (2000, directed by Wisit Sasanatieng). Douglas Sirk? Sam Peckinpah? The Shaw Brothers? Bollywood? There's no doubt that this film is an explosion in the genre factory (one that lands severed limbs everywhere), but it would be lazy for me to catalog the various references, and presumptuous, too, because I am seriously ignorant of Thai cinema, and I'm sure that I'm not getting half the allusions. So maybe, I should start with the quote at the head of this review. This is a movie designed to make the audience feel more than it is designed to make the audience think. Oh, it CAN make you think if you have a post-modern, deconstructive impulse. It encourages that in some of its more overcooked moments. But the genre references the film is built from all have this in common: they're all about style and emotionality and in both cases, they are pitched at an eleven.
In its story particulars, it's kind of hokey. This is always a risk with melodrama, and you can either subvert it or wallow in it. This film wallows in it. The story follows doomed lovers. Rumpoey is an upper class woman who is betrothed to a local police captain, Kumjorn. Black Tiger is a notorious bandit, the deadliest man in the district, who is Rumpoey's childhood flame. Black Tiger works for the merciless crime boss, Fai, who Kumjorn has sworn to take down. Also working for Fai is Mahesuan, who is devoted to and insanely jealous of Black Tiger in about equal measure. There are crosses and double crosses throughout the movie, interspersed with insane action sequences in which blood, limbs, and other viscera fly. Taken as an action movie, this doesn't disappoint, but the action is set in a movie that seems a bit to arty, and a bit too artificial to satisfy an audience for cult movies. Maybe this is deliberate. Probably.
It's a beautiful movie, I should note. Filmed in saturated colors that re-create the gaudiest of technicolor excesses, this is a lysergic dream fugue. The artifice is striking, especially when it segues from obviously set-bound tableaux with painted backgrounds and cloud-tank effects into carefully chosen "real" landscapes. Combined with the simplistic melodrama of the plot, the film's visual design creates a kind of hothouse effect, one amplified by completely inexplicable flourishes punctuating the action. It has a sense of its own absurdity, and clues the audience in early when, having dispatched a character with fancy shooting, it rewinds and shows it to us again, in detail. The film is cleverer than it's more simplistic elements would have you believe, and pretty much all of this is done for effect. I mean, one of the villains has a painted-on mustache. That's a conscious choice with a specific effect. The evil laughter of the same character is the kind of fake "acting" laughter one finds in kung-fu movies. This, too, has a calculated effect. Sometimes its calculations are subtle, too, though "subtle" is sometimes hard to see with this movie. Take this shot:
...in which there's not only a rear projection, but the rear projection is in black and white, in stark contrast to the blazingly red interior of the car. It's a nice kind of manipulation. Douglas Sirk would be proud of it. For that matter, this movie has an old-Hollywood understanding of matinee idols and boy, howdy, does it know how to film them. It gives itself over to the sheer beauty of its stars and indulges a deliriously romantic relationship between them and the camera.
If the film has a flaw, and I'm not even sure it is a flaw, it's in its bifurcated nature. There's a long stretch in the middle of the movie that is sure to give fans of cult action movies fits, because it's all a broadly pitched weepie. For that matter, an audience for weepies is likely to be put off by the violent action. Both of these impulses go for a gut reaction, and the wild mood swings between them can be disorienting, or, to some audiences, boring. If you're hip to what the movie is doing, though, it can be a pleasurable roller coaster. For myself, I liked it. And, it's not as if it doesn't give both audiences value for their money. The cult audience absolutely cannot complain that there's a lack of outré elements. I mean, there's a friggin' little person bandito! The last place in the world I ever expected to see a self-reference to The Terror of Tiny Town is in a Western from Thailand:
And the final shoot out is like some kind of love letter to Asian action films, part Seijun Suzuki, part Ringo Lam. It's pretty nasty, but it's so outrageous that most audiences probably won't mind. I didn't. I laughed out loud at it, which I think is the goal of the filmmakers.
For the most part, this movie is a box into which the filmmakers have poured everything they know and love about movies. It's an infectious enthusiasm when coupled with a keen sense of tragedy and sentiment. Tears of the Black Tiger has both of these in spades. This is a box filled to bursting.