Tears of the Black Tiger (Fa Talai Jone)

Director: Wisit Sasanatieng
Year: 2000
Starring: Stella Malucchi (Rompoey), Chartchai Ngamsan (Dum), Sombati Medhanee (Fai), Supakorn Kitsuwon (Mahesuan), Arawat Ruangvuth (Police Captain Kumjorn), Santisuk Promsiri (young Dum)
Time: 104 minutes

Director Wisit Sasanatieng could never live in a black and white world, but he clearly revels in the films made from that period. In this film he chews up a number of those influences from B Westerns to silent movies to old Thai melodramas and spits them out on a canvass of exploding colors and visual wit. It’s a delirious free fall into a Wizard of Oz technicolor dream of film images and styles from the past all exaggerated as if fed on streams of psychedelic drugs. Every scene appears to be a homage to some film genre/style/shot that ate its way into the director’s consciousness as he was growing up, but out of this he manages to create a bizarre and beautiful hybrid film that is stunningly original and undefinable. His integration of startling colors, sounds and music make this almost a tone poem on one level, but his sense of the absurd shakes it loose of any potential artistic pretensions and provides a unique eye popping giddy viewing experience.

The plot is as clichéd as an orphan’s smudged face, but this is no doubt exactly what the director was attempting. Though the narrative plays out in apparent sincerity – and actually is fairly touching at times – Sasanatieng spins visual magic around it and his tongue in cheek playful style is very humorous and always giving the viewer a wink. In a very early scene the director announces his comical intentions when the hero Dum is in a shootout and his enemy is hiding behind a pillar. Dum gages the situation and ricochets a shot into the man. Suddenly a card pops up on the screen in silent film fashion and asks “Do you want to see that again?” and answers its own question by showing in slow motion the bullet ricocheting off a number of things before reaching its intended target. Everything is exaggerated from the villainous laughs to the twirling moustaches to the gobs of blood, but it all has an intended effect of both being homage and being affectionately comical at the same time. Much of the film is pure deranged anachronism – a Western – set in Thailand – in the 1950s. It may not make much sense, but who cares?
Dum grows up as the son of a poor farmer and becomes friends with Rumpoey the daughter of a wealthy landowner. This clearly does not set well with her parents and she is sent off to Bangkok to get her away from Dum. A number of years later in Bangkok Dum saves her from a group of leering male students and the two fall in love. They plan to elope but first Dum returns home where he finds a local hooligan has killed his parents. He picks up his father’s rifle and goes for revenge, but is rescued from his own death by a friend of his father, Fai, the head of the bandit group called The Black Tigers. Now a wanted killer, Dum joins the outlaws and soon gains a reputation as a steely never miss killer – but he still yearns for Rumpoey and she for him. But she is promised to another man - the man responsible for hunting the Black Tigers down.
The action too is exaggerated – more like speed reading a series of comic book panels and one almost expects too see a “Pow!” pop up on the screen. The shootouts have more of a spaghetti Western look to them than the early B&W Westerns – even to the point of having Morricone like music trumpeting in the background. The two face-off draws between Dum and Mahesuan are wonderful little minuets of camera movement, eye movement and perfect stillness that also echo the Sergio Leone films. The film is fairly violent but not meant to be taken at all seriously – willing victims stand out in the open in chorus lines to be machine gunned down, a missile hits one fellow and transports him off the floor for 30-feet until it explodes against a wall, bullets cause huge geysers of deep red blood. One even suspects that the geysers of blood contrasted against the blue shirts are simply another aesthetic that the director wants to add to his canvass as much as striving for a Peckinpah moment.
The film is awash in deep saturated colors – often set in stunning contrast to one another as in one perfect shot of Rumpoey attired in bright yellow, her red lipstick against her pale Gene Tierney like glamorous face, the room swathed in rich green and the moon blazing in the background. Or a scene on a marsh where everything looks murky blue except the impossibly red orchids that dot the water – and the water later turning into a blood like red. The colors are napalm on your eyeballs – joyful and imaginative – brighter than any film I have seen – an artificial world of colors painted onto our brain. In fact, one gorgeous scene – one of the face-offs – all takes place against a painted giant background of the sun breaking through the clouds – I have no idea why he chose to do this but it is magical.
This is a fabulous film – a pop explosion that attacks your sensory nerves in a gentle playful manner and enough humor and romance to keep you wanting to go further with these characters. It certainly may not be everyone’s cup of tea – and a few film critic reviews I came across had really negative reactions to it – but there is simply no other film I have seen that is like this. That it was the debut film for Wisit Sasanatieng astonishes me.

There is a Region 2 DVD as well as a Region 3 Thai DVD with subs and the VCD from Edko is excellent quality and also has subs. If you like the music as much as I did – a beautiful mix of Thai tear drenched ballads and up-tempo Thai folk fiddle music – there is also a great soundtrack available. Mirimax has the US rights to this film and in their often mystifying manner have been sitting on the film for 2 years while the hype disappeared and folks have purchased other DVD versions. I can’t imagine that they plan on releasing this in theaters but that would be my 2003 wish – to see this on the big screen and me planted in the front row.

My rating for this film: 9.0

Reviewed by Simon Booth

Now where on earth did this movie come from? Why was there no warning? Shouldn't we have seen it coming somehow? Like PISTOL OPERA, TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER paints itself across the screen in bold bright colours as if to say to the rest of the movie making world "Are you so fresh out of ideas already?". Unlike Seijun Suzuki's piece of abstract art in motion though, TOTBT is not just utterly removed from filmic convention - it's just in utterly the wrong time and place.

The movie is basically a 1950's Hollywood Western/Melodrama... made in 21st Century Thailand (and with tongue firmly in cheek). The clothes, the hairstyles, the sets, the camerawork, the soundtrack, the acting, the script... all spot on for 50's America. The movie has even been bizarrely colourised in a way reminiscent of very early colour film stock, but obviously done digitally and deliberately, with an eye to the exact shifting of colours that best suits each shot. Hues are shifted to colours the world is not meant to be, and saturation is selectively ramped up to 1000 to create lurid pinks and shocking yellows and an absolutely unique look to the film. It looks weird, but fantastic.
TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER has two major advantages over PISTOL OPERA. Firstly, they remembered to include a story. And it's a really good one... a melodrama in the finest tradition, featuring love and loss and friendship and rivalry and hatred and sorrow and jealousy and heroism and good and evil and all the finest things in life. The script is very well thought out, full of lots of details that are woven together in a way that keeps you on your toes.
Secondly, it's incredibly funny. The mood is definitely spoof, and absolutely pitch perfect. I haven't laughed out loud so much since SHAOLIN SOCCER, yet secretly really caring about what was going to happen to the characters. Acting is as over the top as the soundtrack, in permanent crescendo, delivered with a straight face and sincerity that would make the most melancholy of viewers at least giggle a bit.
I enjoyed this movie so much - so utterly out of nowhere, inexplicable, funny, sweet, moving,... where did these ideas come from? It all fits together and makes so much sense you think perhaps the idea was obvious all along, but I'm pretty sure that it was in exactly one persons head ever before he put it on film. And then there are few curveballs that are *definitely* ideas of an insane but brilliant mind.

Very highly recommended!

The UK DVD is pretty decent overall... clean print, anamorphic transfer. The sound mix is a little bit odd at times, but I think this is deliberate. The Malata had a little trouble with it though... for 99% of the movie it was fine on "STILL" and looking great, but a couple of scenes (always action scenes for some reason) started combing like hell. Oh, and I had to stretch the movie vertically by quite a few percent before it looked correct aspect ratio. At least the subtitles stayed in sync though :D. A Thai Region 3 version has been released that apparently has some additional footage included.