Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Wisit Sasanatieng's "Tears of the Black Tiger"

Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah talai jone). 2000. Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. Produced by Nonzee Nimibutr. Cinematography by Nattawut Kittikhun. Edited by Dusanee Puinongpho. Music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh. Production design by Ek Iemchuen. Art direction by Akradech Keaw Kotr and Rutchanon Kayangnan. Costume design by Chaiwichit Somoboon.

Cast: Chartchai Ngamsan (Seua Dum, "Black Tiger"), Stella Malucchi (Rumpoey), Supakorn Kitsuwon   (Mahasuan), Arawat Ruangvuth (Police Captain Kumjorn), Sombati Medhanee (Fai), Pairoj Jaisingha (Phya Prasit), Naiyana Shiwanun (Rumpoey's maid), Kanchit Kwanpracha (Kamnan Dua, Dum's father), Chamloen Sridang (Sgt. Yam).

Asia Society's essential "Blissfully Thai" film series continues with Wisit Sasanatieng's deliriously psychedelic classic Thai cinema homage Tears of the Black Tiger, screening tomorrow at 6:45pm.  For tickets, click here. Below is what I wrote on this film at the time of its extremely belated 2007 US release.

“Nostalgia as future shock,” is how the press notes describe Tears of the Black Tiger, the debut film from Thai writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng.  The first Thai film chosen for the Cannes Film Festival, it was purchased by Miramax shortly after its Cannes screening in 2001, but – as was so often the case, especially with their Asian film acquisitions – Miramax proceeded to agitate and frustrate the film’s potential audience by holding back its theatrical release, forcing fans to troll the Internet to search for English-subtitled imports.

Sasanatieng is a major player in the renaissance of Thai cinema that began in the late ‘90s, which also includes Tears of the Black Tiger’s producer Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak, Jan Dara), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (6ixty9, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady), and Hong Kong-born brothers Oxide and Danny Pang (Bangkok Dangerous, The Eye). Many of these filmmakers (with the exception of Weerasethakul, whose background was in avant-garde film and gallery installations) began in advertising, and Sasanatieng is no exception. He experimented in his commercial work with much of the wild visual tropes and super-saturated coloring featured in his film.

Consisting of equal parts Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and the palimpsests of numerous 50’s and 60’s Thai action films, Sasanatieng’s film brilliantly combines cutting-edge technology (much of the film’s bright pastel colors were digitally added in post-production) with nostalgia for the popular cinema of Thailand’s recent past. Tears of the Black Tiger boldly jettisons realism in order to create a uniquely cinematic universe. Making use of such retro-cinema techniques as painted sets, back projection, iris shots and wipes, Sasanatieng has created a visually stunning and self-aware pop artifact. There is a quite bracing spirit of formal playfulness that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino. One great example occurs during the opening shootout, in which the two central gunslingers, attired in the archetypal costumes of Hollywood Westerns, battle seemingly dozens of other gunmen. These antagonists are dispatched en masse, punctuated with enormous, and absurdly fake, bright red squibs of blood. After the film’s hero kills one of them with a bullet that ricochets off several surfaces before landing right between his eyes, a title card appears: “Did you catch that? If not, we’ll play it again.” The sequence then replays at a slightly slower speed and from a different angle, allowing us to follow the bullet’s trajectory. This sort of genre parody/homage is in abundance throughout the film.

The film’s plot is unabashedly melodramatic: Dum (Chutchai Ngamsan), the son of a poor peasant farmer, falls in love with Rumpoey (Stella Mallucci), the daughter of the local governor. Class differences conspire to keep them apart, culminating in Rumpoey’s unwilling betrothal to police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). During his time apart from Rumpoey, Dum has become a bandit, the titular “Black Tiger,” infiltrating the gang who murdered his father in order to avenge that death. When he learns of the gang’s plan to ambush the governor’s house on Rumpoey’s wedding day, Dum must battle both his romantic rival and his former compadres in order to save her.

This “pad thai Western,” to use critic Chuck Stephens’ description, was conceived as an homage to Thai genre film master Rattana Pestonji, an independent filmmaker active in the ‘50’s and ‘60s who has now been mostly forgotten, both in and out of Thailand. Perhaps this film will encourage repertory houses and film societies to seek out this director’s work, which at least on paper seem to be long overdue for rediscovery. However, Tears of the Black Tiger is not simply an empty post-modern exercise. The obvious affection with which Sasanatieng regards his Thai cinema forbears, not to mention the Western films that influenced them, permeates every aspect of this production. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, Tears of the Black Tiger is a feast for the eyes and ears, an orgy of riotous color and movie-mad delight.

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