by Scott Pendergraft
My friend Matt and I wanted to grab a beer before the preview screening of Tears of the Black Tiger, but we only had a few minutes before the film started. So we hung out in the lobby of the Seven Gables, where we overheard one film critic talking to another about the glories of contemporary Asian dramas, in particular those films with a three-hour-plus running time. Yaaawn.
Thankfully, Tears of the Black Tiger, a Thai western made in 2000 but for business reasons is just now showing up on these shores, was nothing like what our peer in the lobby so reveres.
The movie opens with a gun battle. In the climax, we watch as our hero, Dum a.k.a. Black Tiger, takes aim at an enemy hiding in the background. Instead of shooting a straight shot, however, he shoots off to the side. Ping-ping-ping-ping, and the enemy slumps dead in the background. A title card then appears asking the audience, “Did you catch that?” The scene replays and we watch as the bullet ricochets off a shovel, a dresser, a doll, and a painting, ending in a gory close-up, into the forehead of the enemy—hilarious. I’ve never taken such joy in watching a man getting his head blown off.
Matt remarked that Tears of the Black Tiger was the “Thai Three Amigos.” There’s some truth to that. It is a parody, or perhaps an homage, of a genre very few outside of Thailand have ever seen, the Thai western, which had its heyday in the 1950s, and which I imagine were themselves parodies of American westerns. It’s not just a parody, though. It’s a stylistic triumph.
The director, Wisit Sasanatieng, took a number of steps to achieve an authentic look and feel. Most obviously, the colors are highly saturated. The leaves are so green, they’re blue, and the walls so white, they’re pink.
Also, the dialogue and acting are intentionally hokey (“Danger? I love danger!”). If you can get into the spirit of it, you’ll find yourself laughing, and laughing, and laughing just like the characters onscreen. The director even uses painted backgrounds on occasion. As a bonus, this anachronistic style has the effect of making the excessive blood and gore seem that much more brutal—and uproarious.
The plot is pure melodrama. Rampoey, the governor’s daughter, is engaged to a dickhead police captain. She, of course, loves Dum, a peasant’s son. Forced by tough luck into a life of crime, Dum struggles with his own feelings for Rampoey while he and his fellow outlaws fight the police and whomever else gets in their way. It all comes to an explosive conclusion on the day of Rampoey’s wedding.
During the flashback sequence detailing Rampoey and Dum’s recent past together, Matt fell asleep. He had a point. Lacking much comedy, those scenes have nowhere near the giddy energy of the myriad shoot-outs and campfire scenes. Luckily, the bloodshed—and the laughs—are always just around the corner.