Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) directed by Wisit Sasanatieng
What’s it about?
This Western/romantic melodrama pastiche is set in Thailand during the mid-20th century. Chartchai Ngamsan plays Dum, a gunslinger also known by his nom de plume: The Black Tiger. He works for a gang of bandits called The Tigers, which is run by Fai (Sombat Metanee). He is also locked in a rivalry with the latter’s right-hand man Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon) as they vie to be renowned as the gang’s finest shot. One day, while Dum rests on a tree playing his trusty harmonica, Mahesuan challenges him to a duel in order to find out who is supreme. Dum shoots first… but rather than shooting his rival, he blows the head off a tree snake which was about to strike him. Mahesuan thanks him for saving his life.
Meanwhile, back at Dum’s old hometown, his childhood sweetheart Rumpoey Rajasena (Stella Malucchi) awaits his promised return at a wooden sala built on a lake. When he fails to show up, she is devastated - especially since this means that her father will force her into an arranged marriage with Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), whom she doesn’t love. Moreover, Kumjorn has been assigned to track down The Tigers and take them out.
Amid various shootouts, the film flashes back to Dum’s earlier life as we see the blossoming relationship between his childhood self (played by Suwinit Panjamawat) and the headstrong Rumpoey. We also learn how he got that harmonica and the circumstances which led him down his path of banditry.
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Why is it significant?
This Thai (Massaman?) Western was certainly something of an eye-opener when it got released in the Western world in the early 2000s. This wasn’t only because the idea of a Western hailing from this extremely Eastern part of the world was such an incredibly bizarre and ironic notion; it was also because Thai cinema was such an unknown quantity full-stop. While the country’s film industry had been in existence since the 1920s, hardly any of its output was released overseas. Indeed, Tears of the Black Tiger was the first to be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (in 2001). It garnered mostly positive reviews from critics - and prompted the UK’s Uncut Magazine to proclaim it to be as “mad as a bag of spiders”. However, despite all of the plaudits that it won worldwide, it was actually a flop during its original domestic box office run.
Along with Bangkok Dangerous (also 2000), it helped to open the floodgates for other Thai films to make their way into UK release schedules on DVD and occasionally in cinemas. A number of these fall into in the action genre, including vehicles for martial artists Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak, Warrior King and their sequels) and JeeJa Yanin (Chocolate). Others, including Bangkok Haunted (2001) and 13: Game of Death (2006) fit more snugly into the horror category. The artier works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (such as Mysterious Object at Noon, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour) have also made their way to UK shores in recent years.
While it clearly homages both Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng was also heavily inspired by various aspects of Thai culture as well as the country’s 1960s/1970s action films. Actor Sombat Metanee was a well-known genre star from back then.
How does it hold up?
Tears of the Black Tiger is a one-of-a-kind experience, particularly from an audio-visual standpoint. It makes extensive use of florid, heavily-saturated colours - greens, pinks and yellows - reminiscent of old hand-painted monochrome photos. There’s even a garishly-painted sky backdrop featured in one particular scene. Some flashbacks involve whimsical title cards and jerky, scratchy footage in homage to old silent-era films. The soundtrack is heavy with lyrical folk ballads. Stella Malucchi is shot in a warm, soft-focus reminiscent of actresses in old Hollywood films. The action sequences are wildly over-the-top, being heavily influenced by the overblown gestures of the Spaghetti Western along with the wild body counts and explosive gore of the Rambo and John Woo films.
As a parody of all of the above, it’s often very funny. Wisely, both the director and most of the cast choose to play it straight and allow the laughs to come naturally from the ever-escalating absurdity of the action and hammy melodrama. A scene where Fai kills a gang member who betrayed them is stylised to the point where it becomes deliberately laughable; he fires a bullet at the hapless victim through the hole in a coin flipped through the air and still manages to blast his brains all over the camera! On the more gentle side of things, Kumjorn’s sincere expressions of love towards the visibly disinterested Rumpoey (who rarely even looks him in the eyes) have a certain sad amusement to them.
At the midst of it all, however, is a genuinely touching and bittersweet tale of star-crossed lovers. The film imbues a truly engaging bond between the stoic Dum and temperamental Rumpoey that communicates passion even though the two characters are barely seen touching on screen. Instead, Wisit uses poetic dialogue and visuals - such as the scenes of their tranquil time together on a lake filled with garishly pink flowers - to bring this across. However, these melancholic aspects don’t jar with the overall sense of fun; instead, they deepen the film and mold it into something a bit more than a mere fanciful joke.
Runtime: 101 mins
Dir: Wisit Sasanatieng
Script: Wisit Sasanatieng
Starring: Chartchai Ngamsan, Suwinit Panjamawat, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Arawat Ruangvuth, Sombat Metanee