In the shadow of Japan and South-Korea, Thailand had its own little film resurgence during the 00s. Wisit Sasanatieng was one of the front-runners of this revival, coupling original takes on established genres with a completely unique visual style. Tears of the Black Tiger [Fah Talai Jone] was his first film and it made quite a splash from the get-go. I liked it plenty the first time around, but it's been years since I last watched it and I had no idea how I would react to it almost 20 years later. In other words, high time for a rewatch.
It's not that easy to describe what Tears of the Black Tiger is all about. It's a blend of different genres that generally don't go well together, executed in a style that makes no logical sense. On paper, it's a mix of western and romance, but that doesn't even begin to describe the experience, as Sasanatieng doesn't merely recycle the typical clichés that come with both genres. Instead, he borrows familiar elements, juxtaposes them and tries to make them as alien and jarring as possible. The result is a blast, unless you're expecting a typical genre film.
I'm not a fan of westerns, not really big on sentimental, overstated romance either. The only westerns I tend to like are those that break with the conventions of the genre and that's exactly what Sasanatieng is going for here. No ruff and rugged, beardy tough guys fighting it out in barren landscapes, but a bunch of Thai dudes running around in lavish green, cyan and magenta settings flipping pistols at each other. The action is broken up by an overly cheesy romance that reminded me a little of the Mexican soap opera cliché. It just makes the joke that much crazier.
The plot is little more than an excuse, a hook for all the weirdness. The film revolves around Dum, a simple country boy who falls in love with Rumpoey, the daughter or a rich businessman. A boat ride on the lake ends badly and Rumpoey barely survives the ordeal. Dum is held responsible, he's punished quite harshly and barred from seeing Rumpoey. Years later the two meet again, but under very different circumstances. Rumpoey is engaged to an army man and Dum became a notorious criminal, known as the Black Tiger.
The visuals are integral to the experience of Tears of the Black Tiger. The colors absolutely pop, with strong cyan and magenta hues dominating the screen. Add some bright greens and yellows and you have an unprecedented, insane-looking color palette for a western. Odd as it may look though, it does fit the Thai aesthetic really well. People who have visited Bangkok will no doubt recognize the color palette as taken for their taxi services (strange as that may sound). The only real problem is that the film lacks a proper HD release. The DVD releases out there have pretty poor transfers, which don't do a lot of justice to the superb cinematography and lovely colors here.
The soundtrack is incredibly tongue in cheek. Classic early 20th century music, sometimes with Thai vocals, make up most of the music selection. You may frown a little at the start of the film, I admit that it does take some getting used to, but it goes extremely well with the visual quirkiness and it adds plenty of atmosphere. It's nice to see a director committing himself to an idea this vigorously. The accentuated sound effects only add to the fun, creating a tight, delightful audiovisual experience.
The acting too is on par. Don't expect any nuanced or deep-digging dramatic performances, it's all very much over-the-top, with lots smirking, nudging and winking. It's nice to see that the actors were clearly in on the joke, but people unfamiliar with Thai cinema may wonder what the hell is going on and whether this is representative of Thai cinema in general. Rest assured, overacting isn't part of their cultural heritage, it's just that a film like this demands larger than life performances.
With a running time nearing the two-hour mark, Tears of the Black Tiger is a little too long for its own good. The middle part drags a little as the film fixates on the soapy drama. These bits are there to hold the plot together and I get that it's also part of the fun, but I don't think the length of this segment was entirely warranted for the joke it supports. It's only a minor hiccup though, the finale is a sprawling mess, including crazy shoot-outs and mad stand-offs, which make it all the easier to forget the little pacing issues in the middle.
Quite simply put, there's no film like Tears of the Black Tiger out there. It's a mad blend of western and soap drama, wrapped in Thai goodness, rendered in the craziest color combos imaginable and sporting one of the cheesiest soundtracks I've ever heard. No doubt one of those films that need to be seen to be believed. It's not the easiest recommend as it's a film that is sure to divide an audience, but if you're in for something different, something extravagant and hilarious, you can do little wrong with this one.