International Western Films: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

The Thai film industry doesn't have much of a following in the United States, and what a pity. After all, Thai filmmakers have been churning out wildly entertaining genre films for decades now, but outside of the occasional export (such as the terrifyingly frenetic 2003 film "Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior"), they haven't gotten the level of exposure in America enjoyed by filmmakers from parts of Asia like China and Japan.

Some of this might be explained by the fact that, for a long time, Thai cinema consisted mostly of cheaply made action and exploitation films, or stately but culturally specific melodramas. But the same can be said of Chinese cinema in the '70s, and that hardly prevented American audiences from enjoying the voluminous output of Hong Kong studios that specialized in martial arts epics.

One film that was a successful transplant bore the English title "Tears of the Black Tiger," although its actual title in Thai, "Fah talai jone," literally translates as "the heavens strike the thief," which is just better, frankly.

The film was made in 2000 and quickly picked up for American distribution by Miramax, which then got nervous about the whole undertaking and shelved the release, as they did for years with Zhang Yimou's "Hero," which then became a big hit anyway. It's was not likely that "Tears of the Black Tiger" would find the same sort of vast audience, as it is a much weirder film, but Magnolia Pictures acquired the rights from Miramax and sent the film out to art house theaters, where it probably belonged.

It's not that "Tears of the Black Tiger" is the sort of film that would be all that foreign to American audiences. It is, after all, a cowboy film of a sort, as we discover in a bravura opening scene in which the film's hero, a beatific actor named Chartchai Ngamsan, charges a Thai building.

The actor plays the film's title character, the Black Tiger, and he is dressed in black cowboy habiliments, including 10-gallon hat and boots. He quickly dispatches dozens of opponents, in one scene ricocheting a bullet off a half-dozen metal objects and neatly spearing a man hiding behind a post. At this moment, the filmmaker, Wisit Sasanatieng, stops the action, a title card asks ,"Did you catch that? If not, we'll play it again!" and then the scene is replayed in more detail, just to make clear the Black Tiger's exceptional skills as a gunfighter.

It's an odd moment, at once bravura and campy, but one that seems to define the film. Wisit Sasanatieng has used "Tears of the Black Tiger" to revisit some of the more despised genres of Thai film, which he views with a winking affection. Believe it or not, the Thai film industry made a large number of cowboy films during its golden age, and the director playfully couples this genre with another: a sensational approach to action films that were dismissively called "raberd poa, khaow pao kratom," which translates as "bomb the mountain, burn the huts."

As a result, the director's approach to violence in this film is deliberately excessive — ridiculously so. Gunshots produce a blowback of thick gore, and cowboys battle police officers with machine guns. It seems the excessive violence with which Sam Peckinpah ended "The Wild Bunch" is merely the starting point for "Tears of the Black Tiger." It's alarming how often characters spontaneously produce shoulder-mounted rocket launchers to end a fight.

But Wisit Sasanatieng is also borrowing from another genre of Thai filmmaking, the mannered and emotional films of the '50s and '60s that contemporary Thai audiences have dubbed "nam nao," which translates, delightfully, as "stink water." Although "Tears of the Black Dragon" was shot in 2000, it was processed weirdly, with its filmmakers converting it to digital Betacam and then re-transferring it back to film, giving the colors of the film a luminous, unreal quality. A number of the scenes are staged on obvious sets with painted backdrops, and the acting style is deliberately theatrical, consisting of bold gestures and unnatural pronouncements, made even more unnatural by the use of presentational cinematic techniques, such as ending a scene by having the screen iris in on one character before fading to black.

It's as though the director wanted to revisit the now-reviled genres of Thai cinema by recreating them as a folk art. Although the resulting film is terrifically odd as a result, Wisit Sasanatieng displays his genuine affection for these old films in every frame: He really understands the power of cowboy films, luxuriating in exquisitely composed images of gangs of cowboys on horseback, or the way gunfighters subtly shift their weight in preparation for a duel. The film is as unnatural — but as exciting and beautiful — as the hand-painted posters that once accompanied genre films to theaters.


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