By Sarah Silver
Tears of the Black Tiger
Dir. Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand, Magnolia
There’s something dubious about a director paying overt homage to his influences, whether it’s Gus Van Sant’s tiresome shot-for-shot Psycho exercise, or Todd Haynes’s subtext-made-blatant Douglas Sirk "update" Far from Heaven, which must have made many ticket-buyers wonder “Would I be better off saving a few bucks and renting All That Heaven Allows?”
For his debut feature, Wisit Sasanatieng makes no qualms about aping the style of Thai cinema pioneer Rattana Pestonji, but the difference for American audiences this time is most of us will have to take his word for it—Pestonji’s films are unavailable in the U.S. Sasanatieng claims to have directly quoted certain passages from what are pejoratively called the “Bomb the mountain, burn the huts” Thai action films of the Sixties. Be that as it may, Tears of the Black Tiger simultaneously evokes equal parts Bollywood and Jacques Demy musicals, American melodramas, and the camp gay aesthetic of photographers James Bidgood and Pierre et Gilles. An over-the-top melodrama, Tears owes as much to All That Heaven Allows as Far from Heaven does, and is more faithful to the essence of Sirk’s films, as its teeming sexuality emerges in alternative ways (scandalously eroticized colors, intense, hyperbolic performances, and a scenario straight out of a juicy pulp novel), allowing homoeroticism, and hetero-eroticism, for that matter, to remain covert.
A story of star-crossed lovers, Tears is content to tweak slightly one of the tales as old as time. Like Romeo and Juliet, or the leads in virtually any Bollywood musical, Dum and Rumpoey (Chartchai Ngamsan and Stella Malucchi) come from two different classes and are simply not destined to end up together. Dum is too proud and protective of Rumpoey to let her end up with a scoundrel like himself—for he is the titular Black Tiger, a member of gangster Fai’s band of vengeful crusaders. Rumpoey is the portrait of patience and persistence, but she can do little to stop the workings of fate. Thankfully, just as the endearing young actors in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg helped breathe new color and music into that retelling of Pagnol’s Marius, Fanny, Cesar trilogy, Tears succeeds in revitalizing tried and true themes thanks in large part to disarming performances by relative unknowns.
Much can be made of the concoction of ingredients that went into the aesthetic of Tears of the Black Tiger, but, in the end, exactly who is being paid homage becomes moot. Whatever the sources drawn on, Sasanatieng has made a film that feels like a weird relic from an indeterminate time and place, and it’s enough to just let the effect wash over you, without having to scrutinize its roots. Tears looks the way futuristic things looked in the past, and there is a surreal and intriguing quality to the way East and West tangibly intertwine before our eyes. Certainly, westerns and samurai films have always shared archetypes and plot lines (Seven Samurai becomes The Magnificent Seven), and the relationship between Asian and American action films has remained a symbiotic one (Scorsese’s The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller which had already been called Scorsese-esque), still it’s rare to see East collide with West so viscerally. Here are beautiful Thai men in clingy cowboy outfits riding horses and banding together for shootouts at the corral, all the while adhering to (or breaking) oaths sworn to one another in front of a shrine to Buddha; the mere idea of this visual marriage of Eastern and Western traditions becomes, along with the lush colors, another subconsciously erotic element of the film. Then there are the fluids. Tearsis nothing if not a wet movie, from backstabbing friend Mahasuang (Supakorn Kitsuwon), omnipresent dip in mouth, continually expectorating, to shot after shot of various eyes overflowing with shiny liquid, to streams of milky white steam slowly leaking out the ends of guns, to jets of blood shooting in every direction once a bullet finds its final destination, we see everything except, well, the flagrantly sexy juices. In fact, there are no sex scenes at all in the movie, just the suggestion of a husband taking his resistant wife by force on their wedding night. As mentioned before, Sasanatieng is taking what Haynes took out of Sirk’s closet, and putting it back in.
The acting is theatrical, and the dialogue often singsong, with the players over-enunciating and playing with the tonality of the Thai language. Sasanatieng has stated that he drew heavily on the tradition of Likay theater, a kind of minimal Thai folk performance still seen at fairs today. Aural details, such as Dum’s theme played on flute, then seamlessly taken over by harmonica when Rumpoey replaces his broken instrument with the gift of a mouth harp, repeatedly draw our attention away from the sumptuousness on screen, if only momentarily, and bring our focus to the soundtrack. One particular song, first heard as the accompaniment to an old-timey flashback to Dum and Rumpoey’s early childhood and initial flirtations, and later reprised in a near-Lynchian moment when a diffident singer reservedly croons at the reception of Rumpoey’s wedding to Dum’s rival, has stuck with me since I left the theater.
Sasanatieng, an illustrator and animator, has done a great deal of commercial work in Thailand, and some of the painstakingly handcrafted feel of Tears of the Black Tiger comes through in ads made for jeans and soup. However, the trailer for his upcoming feature Citizen Dog hovers menacingly close to the wink-wink plastic cutesiness (complete with small CGI characters), of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose Amélie (released in France a year after Tears came out in Thailand), is similarly candy-coated, but in a way that rots your teeth. Sasanatieng’s directorial debut is tempered with the knowledge that, to cite the title of a Rattana Pestonji film, “Sugar Is Not Sweet,” and it is the specious nature of the melted sherbet images, the idea that something dark and complicated lies beneath, that keeps you on your toes. Regardless of the direction in which he is headed, Tears of the Black Tiger finds Wisit Sasanatieng at a moment in his artistic career when he is clever without being cloying. It’s a genuinely rare treat, an exquisite indulgence of the type that helps you live longer, like a daily glass of rich, yellow brandy and intricately decorated chocolate truffle.