When it first appeared in 2000, Tears of the Black Tiger (aka Fah Talai Jone), became an instant sensation at almost every film festival that programmed the directorial debut of Wisit Sasanatieng. One of the most ambitious productions to ever emerge from the Thai film industry, Tears of the Black Tiger seemed poised for international success upon its original release but got tangled up in distribution troubles and didn’t receive a U.S. theatrical release until seven years later, despite a great reception at the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival.
Tears of the Black Tiger was soon forgotten by the fickle festival audiences who thought it would be the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But unlike Ang Lee’s breakout hit and surprise Oscar winner, Tears was not a kinetic action film at all but a rare, exotic flower that contains elements of several genres, all of it played out in a stylized palette of day-glo colors and choreographed violence that is closer to a Vincente Minnelli musical than a typical Hollywood Western in its visual design.
There are homages to Sam Peckinpah (slow motion gunfire and exploding blood squibs), spaghetti Westerns (Ennio Morricone-like musical cues), and classic star-crossed romances like Romeo and Juliet. Odd touches abound as well such as the appearance of a dwarf gunslinger or the use of painted, artificial backdrops that resemble stage sets.
Unlike more linear narratives, Tears of the Black Tiger features dual storylines with one story set in the present and the other in the past. Sasanatieng shifts back and forth between the two starting with the introduction of Dum aka Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan) and Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), two gunslingers who work for Fai (Sombat Metanee), a ruthless bandit who has taken control of a rural village. Fai and his gang are soon targeted by Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), who is newly arrived from Bangkok with reinforcements to aid the local police in putting an end to the crime wave.
Then there is a backstory that reveals Dum’s true identity and his childhood bond with Rumpoey, the daughter of a villager. When Dum is blamed for a boating accident that almost drowns Rumpoey, the boy is forbidden to see her again. But they meet later in life as students in Bangkok, fall in love and vow to remain together. That plan is thwarted when Dum is expelled from school for fighting (a provoked attack by three bullies) and returns to his village where the evil chieftain Kong has murdered his father and friends. Seeking vengeance, Dum joins Fai’s band of cutthroats who overthrow and execute Kong and his followers.
The present and the past converge when Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) returns to the village and her father arranges her marriage to Captain Kumjorn despite her protests. It all builds to a climax in which Fai and his followers plan a surprise attack on the wedding party.
Although some reviewers have pigeonholed Tears of the Black Tiger as a camp novelty, the film defies easy categorization, despite the fact that it is essentially a Western. The old-fashioned love story at the core of the movie is surprisingly chaste and idealized. Yet Sasanatieng opts for tragedy instead of an audience-pleasing happy fadeout.
Occasionally the direction is self-consciously playful as in an opening sequence where Dum kills the last standing survivor of a home invasion followed by the snarky aside: “Did you catch that?” The viewer is then shown the trajectory of the deadly bullet that ricochets off the walls and furniture of a house before penetrating the forehead of the man in hiding. But even if the violence has a cartoon-like quality, it can still be jarring as in the coin toss death of Kong or the fateful showdown between Dum and Maheuan.
The film is also hard to pinpoint in terms of the time period since some of the bandits are armed with machine guns while both sides utilize bazookas for maximum damage.
Most of all Tears of the Black Tiger is distinguished by its remarkable visual design. The fever dream look of the film, which may remind some viewers of Bollywood musicals, is further enhanced by the irresistible musical score of Amornbhong Methakunavudh (The soundtrack may still be available on CD). You will find yourself whistling the theme song in the shower for days or even weeks afterwards.
Several U.S. critics were torn in their own responses to the film such as Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post, who wrote “The movie alternates between cornball and ridiculous…Love it or hate it, and I’m not sure which applies to me, you’ve never seen and will never see anything quite like Tears of the Black Tiger.”
Edward Buscombe of Sight and Sound magazine called it a “pastiche” but that’s not a word that is usually complimentary. Still, Buscombe does get at the unique essence of the film in this excerpt: “There’s been nothing quite like it in the Western, with the possible exception of “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” (1985), an unfairly forgotten Tom Berenger parody which had fun with singing cowboy costumes and sunsets. But “Tears of the Black Tiger” goes further. At one point Dum plays the harmonica Rumpoey has given him (definitely an Autry touch) against a huge yellow sunpainted on a backdrop. This isn’t a set painted to deceive (as in the ships painted in at the end of the street in Hitchcock’s “Marnie”). Nor is it a Godard-style alienation device, reminding us we are only watching a movie. In fact, this is more postmodernism than modernism, producing a surface texture which is only surface.”
After Tears of the Black Tiger, Sasanatieng went on to direct five other features and segments in three compilation features, Sawasdee Bangkok (2009), Camellia (2010) and Ten Years Thailand (2018), but has not been able to top the attention and acclaim he received for his directorial debut. Citizen Dog (2004), his follow-up to Tears, was a whimsical fantasy not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001) that was largely overlooked. The Unseeable (2006) was a clichéd and lackluster ghost story but the superhero sci-fi actioner Red Eagle (2010) was a promising return to form. Sasanatieng’s two subsequent features Senior (2015) and Reside (2018) delve in the supernatural but neither were entirely successful. It remains to be seen if Sasanatieng will ever make another film to rival the oddball appeal of Tears of the Black Tiger, which is coming up on its 20th anniversary.
The original cut of Tears of the Black Tiger ran 110 minutes but the U.S. release print, distributed by Miramax Films, was edited down to a 101 minute version and then shelved. Magnolia Pictures acquired the rights in 2006 and it was this 101 minute version that most U.S. audiences saw in theaters. In April 2007 Magnolia Pictures released the original 110 minute version on DVD. There was also a 97 minute cut of the film available as a PAL all region DVD from Pathe. Tears of the Black Tiger has yet to be released on Blu-Ray but the ideal way to see it is on the big screen.
*This is a revised and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on Movie Morlocks (later renamed Streamline), the official blog of Turner Classic Movies.
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