The Black Tiger is free

Weird psychedelic Thai Western finally makes it to America

Mike D'Angelo

Part revenge fantasy and part romantic melodrama, Tears of the Black Tiger isn't remotely difficult to follow—if anything, its narrative is a little too simplistic. Basically, it's a John Hughes movie that thinks it's a psychedelic Western. Our hero, who was born with the rather unfortunate (from our perspective) name Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), has been deeply in love since early childhood with the beautiful Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), daughter of a wealthy landowner in the tiny hamlet where they both live. Dum, however, like any hero worth identifying with, has a bank account that consists of three small rocks and a slice of Velveeta. What's more, Rumpoey has been promised to the local police chief (Arawat Ruangvuth), who's sworn to apprehend the region's most notorious gang—in particular, the ruthless masked bandit known as the Black Tiger. Needless to say, the Tiger is secretly our Dum, who's been forced into a life of crime by his inability to settle down with the girl of his dreams.

It's hard to get too worked up about Dum's mundane dreams, however, when the director's dreams, as refashioned here, are so extraordinarily vivid. Tears of the Black Tiger was reportedly inspired by a tradition of Thai Westerns from the 1960s—a claim that American audiences have to take on faith, since none of those films have ever turned up in this country. It's not remotely hard to believe, though, given Black Tiger's deliberately artificial acting style, its flagrantly theatrical backdrops and (especially) its eye-popping use of color. Pinks and yellows look simultaneously garish and faded, as if Sasanatieng were striving to replicate the look of day-glo Technicolor prints that had seen much better days. One amazing scene, which ostensibly takes place in a field somewhere, looks for all the world as if it's been shot inside of a cheap Van Gogh knockoff, complete with a giant painted sun looming over the actors' heads. You can hardly blame the cast for cranking up the volume to compete with the scenery.

A little of this hallucinogenic splendor goes a long way, though. Sasanatieng initially peppers his nostalgic vision with amusing postmodern fillips—the climax of the opening shootout happens so quickly that we get a title card that reads "Did you catch that? If not, we'll play it again," followed by the same fusillade as rendered in helpful slo-mo. As the film progresses, however, the director becomes more and more sincerely invested in his star-cross'd romantic melodrama, which is so banal that it makes Pretty in Pink look like Brief Encounter. Sasanatieng, needless to say, has since made a couple more features—I personally prefer his Citizen Dog (2004), which plays sort of like a Thai version of the French hit Amélie. (See if you can track it down online.) Tears of the Black Tiger, by contrast, is very much a first film, at once overstuffed and undernourished. Still, I'm grateful to the folks at Magnolia Pictures for rescuing it from Harvey and Bob's clutches. At last, it can be more than just this decade's most magnificent rumor.

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