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Thread: Wisit Sasanatieng: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

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    Wisit Sasanatieng: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

    Wisit Sasanatieng: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)

    The curse of the pastel highlight

    Review by Chris Knipp

    "You've heard of the spaghetti western - this is the stir-fry horse opera" says Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw. This strange genre-saturated movie comes to us in limited US release six years after it "wowed" them at Cannes, where it was the first Thai film shown in the festival's "Un Certain Regard" category. It is available on DVD but not currently in US region code.

    In a tale featuring painted flat backdrops and silent-era acting styles but set in the 1950's, rich girl Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) falls for Saraburi farm boy Sua-Dum (Suwinit Panjamawat) when they meet as kids. They have pledged to marry no matter what, but Dum, a nice boy who turned into the outlaw Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan) after the murder of his father, is held back from getting to Rumpoey on repeated occasions. A tryst is missed, and when he tries to get to her again he is blocked by battles and betrayed by his own blood brother Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon) just as she is about to be married off to a policeman, Captain Kornthurn (Arawat Ruangvuth) -- an enemy of Dum's gang -- by her father. Dum arrives and disrupts the wedding activities.

    When exotic and sometimes lovely Thai scenes (like the two kids' meeting in a reed-filled stream adorned with lily flowers) are interrupted by a creaky cowboy battle or horsemen rushing across a darkened plain to Gene Autry-style music, the effect is indeed peculiar. Anyone searching for pure cinematic novelty may be irresistibly drawn to Fah talai jone, while those who seek the easily readable or identifiable may be repelled. A wide-open taste for camp is a valuable prerequisite.

    There seems to be a gay undertone though it's not overtly asserted. After all, camp is a gay invention. The blood brotherhood of two handsome cowboys depicted in stylized pastel-perfect images very much suggests the work of gay French photographers Pierre et Gilles ("We don't have a message, we only want to create beauty"), whose impossibly handsome and muscle-bound young men are tweaked to a high gloss, whether studiously posed naked or in the costumes and accoutrements of sailor, cowboy, leather man, etc. This film's images seem similarly calculated to delight in their sheer eye-popping artificiality and heightened color, regardless of what our sexual orientation is or what the scene is meant to be doing, if we even know. The lead character, Dum or the Black Tiger (Panjamawat or Ngamsan), is someone whom in both naked youth and tight-shirted adulthood Pierre et Gilles would love to have pose for a portrait. And Sasanatieng's film, like Pierre et Gilles' stills, is gorgeous, overproduced, and cardboardy makebelieve. Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven also comes to mind -- another example of gay camp resuscitation of an admired but dated film style (Douglas Sirk's).

    One can revel in the visuals, which had their color enhanced to screaming pastel perfection in post-production, and this movie has some funny as well as eye-popping moments. Two men shoot at each other, and the film stops to magnify a shot of the bullets colliding then ricocheting off a panoply of objects in Rube Goldberg trajectories. It's not clear how much this is tongue-in-cheek: it illustrates the basic point that a satirist must love the object of his barbs. Much of this reads like na´ve Third World art for an illiterate audience. The wicked enemies and star-crossed lovers and small armies of Thai cowboys galloping across the landscape and doing battle -- sometimes with clear reference (perhaps via Thai westerns) to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah) don't read as serious melodrama like Douglas Sirk's. Sasanatieng has a glorious sense of the visual, but doesn't seem to know how to edit his battles and failed trysts and interrupted weddings and showdowns into a coherent story that moves forward in a steady rhythm. There are lulls. That doesn't seem to bother a guffawing crowd drunk on absurdity, but when the group ha-ha's fade, the sequences tend to drag.

    Writer-director Sasanatieng says Tears of the Black Tiger (whose Thai title reportedly means "Sky Destroys Thief") takes off from Thai westerns. Being totally unfamiliar with that genre, we westerners have to take that on faith and can only guess how much we may be missing. The Black Tiger brought forth laughs in a US screening simply for its patent absurdity -- the deliberately retro coiffures and costumes, the funny makeup, the gross close-ups, the artificial battles. It would look very dated and, absent any cultural context, to be some authentic oddity from Thailand just discovered and delivered to American cultists, hovering somewhere between 1920 and 1975, if it were not so pristine and patently self-conscious and if its colors were not so extraordinarily saturated and struck by processes not available back then.

    Still, being thoroughly unacquainted with that genre we can only guess how much is satire and how much homage, and this remains a problem for those of us who like to know what the heck we're meant to be watching. Again one thinks of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, which is self-conscious and arty homage, clearly with a gay bent, and deliberately and sometimes gloriously artificial -- but as clearly not meant to be laughed at as the Film Forum's American audience laughed at Sasanatieng's movie. A misreading, or merely a slightly biased one?

    Filmgoers blithely cross cultural barriers all the time and there is clearly something to be admired, something unique, about Tears, that's accessible to anyone with an eye for cinematic beauty and artifice.There is a difficulty for the culturally un-clued-in posed by the jumpy narrative.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-23-2007 at 04:54 PM.

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    I watched this piece of delightful kitsch on import dvd about three years ago, enjoyed it for what it is, and forgot about it. It's surprising to find that it's being released here in 2007. As usual, your well-written review helped to refresh my memories of the film.
    I must protest though to your calling the sublime, deeply affecting Far From Heaven "gay camp resuscitation". Haynes' excellent film, was much more than a mere homage to Douglas Sirk. There is nothing "camp" about it. I find that critics referring to both Haynes and Sirk when discussing Sasanatieng's movie are displaying a lack of imagination and familiarity with third world cinema. Tears of a Black Tiger is a hodgepodge of different disparate genres. Among them, a type of heavy-plotted, histrionically-acted, skin-deep, low-budget melodrama popular in SE Asia and Latin America during the mid-20th century. The type of disposable, diverting movie popular both with the working-class masses of both big cities and folks from more remote, even rural, areas. These movies are produced for national consumption, not for export or exhibition in film festivals. Nowadays, this type of third world melodrama survives mostly as made-for-tv serial programs.

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    "Gay camp resuscitation" offensive to Haynes?

    I did not mean to imply Far From Heaven was "mere homage," if there is such a thing as "mere homage." Usually an artist adds something of his own in any "homage," and a filmmaker of the caliber of Todd Haynes obviously does. I don't think Tears of the Black Tiger is capable of anything as complex as that, and I was elevating Tears rather than lowering Far from Heaven by the comparison. I did say that Far From Heven is clearly not meant to be laughed at, though probably Tears is. But you must recognize that everyone is not a passionate devotee of Far From Heaven.

    In that regard, I'll call your attention again to Kevin Lee's carefully argued dissent on Haynes' highly praised film for Cinescene:

    http://www.cinescene.com/reviews/farfromheaven.html

    You will find the words "Far From Heaven" and "camp" constantly appearing together in reviews of Haynes' film, though many times writers hasten to say that it's only occasionally camp, or not merely camp, or not camp at all. But the associations between the film and camp, whether profound or merely superficial, are obvioius to all, even if they are only to be denied. I choose not to deny them, because I think that is false, and I do not denigrate anything because it is camp any more than I would because it is gay. However I will say that Far From Heaven makes me uncomfortable with its solemnity and odd, slightly off tone throughout. The idea that Haynes sought to "bring back to life" the works of Douglas Sirk isn't original with me either, and comes up in the reviews. He may do that and more; this Thai director may be seeking to bring back to life too, or simply to revel in allusion, while we laugh.

    What about your use of "delightful kitsch"? Should we accept that? While camp is often intentional, kitsch is usually not. So are you saing Sasanatieng is naive? Or should you have said "delightful intentional kitsch"?

    I recognized what you're saying at greater length about the popular genres now surviving mostly in TV series when I said, "Much of this reads like na´ve Third World art for an illiterate audience." Perhaps it doesn't take your vast knowledge of Latin American and Asian popular cinema to perceive that.

    It is surprising that this is being released here in 2007, but I don't know how far the release will go. You can inform us about that.
    I find that critics referring to both Haynes and Sirk when discussing Sasanatieng's movie are displaying a lack of imagination and familiarity with third world cinema.
    We can only pity them.
    Tears of a Black Tiger is a hodgepodge of different disparate genres.
    But what about the one stated one, Thai western? Does your knowledge extend to it? Mine sure as heck doesn't. And that's the one I'd like to know about, since it's the most overt reference in the movie.

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