Monday, July 12, 2004

Review: Tears of the Black Tiger

  • Written and directed by Wisit Sasantieng
  • Starring Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucci, Supakorn Kitsuwan, Sombat Metanee
  • Released in Thailand in 2000; Region 3 DVD release in Thailand by Digital Right with English subtitles (out of print)
  • Rating: 5/5

The first Thai film I ever saw, I was captivated initially by the colors.

It's raining steadily, and a woman, dressed neatly in a 1940s magenta dress is walking with an umbrella and a suitcase, across a wood plankway in a vivid green lotus pond to a white gazebo (or sala) with a roof that matches the color of her dress.

She's waiting.

Elsewhere, a couple of 1940s cowboy-looking guys are outside a bungalow, where some bad guys have holed up. There's shooting, disturbing a cow. The guys go in. A bad guy is hiding behind a post, hoping to get the drop on the heroes. The more somber looking of the two -- dressed all in black with a shoulder holster, draws. He aims at the wall, away from the man that's hiding. The bullet richochets around. The man falls dead.

Did you get that? If you missed it, we'll show it to you again, says a bit of advertising-like sunburst text.

The shot is repeated in slow motion, with the bullet bouncing off various things in a Rube Goldberg manner until it goes through the guy's forehead with a big, bloody, red splat. It's a sign of more fun to come.

There's still another bad guy. He's up in the ceiling. He tries to get the drop on the boys. A gun barrel pokes through a hole in the floor. The man in black sees it, pushes his friend out of the way and shoots lead into the ceiling, cutting away a perfect hole for the guy above to fall through.

The man in black is Dum (the Thai word for the color black). His friend, dressed in a bright blue cowboy shirt, is Mahesuan.

Dum's got to run. He must meet the woman. But it's too late. The woman waited long enough. She returns home, heartbroken. She must marry another man -- a man she does not love.

Through this highly stylized tale, that blends bits of Golden Age Thai cinema of the 50s and 60s with the westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, we learn about the tortured romance between Dum and the woman, who's name is Rumpoey.

They first met when they were children. Rumpoey, the daughter of a high government official, was visiting the countryside and was hosted by Dum's father, a village headman. An incident in that beautiful, green lotus pond leaves young Dum scarred for life. It also deeply affects the young, bratty Rumpoey. As she matures, her love for Dum grows deeper.

The story of how Dum becomes an ace gun hand, riding with a band of outlaws, is best experienced while watching the film.

The highlights in this film are many. Besides that first display of trick gunplay, there are a couple of battle scenes with the outlaws vs the government's forces -- led by the man Rumpoey is to marry. Just as the outlaws appear to be losing the fight, Dum and Mahesuan show up with a pair of rocket launchers to turn the tide back.

This reminds me of the final battle scene in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Music is key. Dum has a sad theme. Just like Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West, Dum plays the harmonica, a mournful refrain in remembrance of love lost.

Another giddy, upbeat theme, with whistling and happy violin playing is used when the outlaws are riding their horses across Thailand's Central Plains. The lyrics are quite, sad, however.

The set design is also noteworthy. At one point, Dum is playing his harmonica against an obviously fake, bright yellow sunset. That it was shot on a soundstage is quite apparent.

Appropriately, the acting is all overplayed and theatrical, especially Mahesuan (the versatile Supakorn Kitsuwon from Monrak Transistor). He talks with a booming, bragging manner of speech and carries himself with a swagger. A pencil-thin fake mustache completes the outfit. He laughs a lot -- an evil laugh that is infectious. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Another great supporting player is veteran Thai action star Sombat Metanee, who plays Fai, the leader of the outlaw gang.

"Remember Fai's law," he tells his men. "Whoever betrays Fai, dies."

And he laughs. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

In once scene Fai proves his point by shooting a traitor. He flips a coin with a hole in it into the air. The the bullet passes through the hole, the man will die. He dramatically turns, draws and fires. Of course the bullet passes through. A brain is shown and then the man's head explodes.

Rumpoey is placed by Stella Malucci, who's costuming and hairstyle are combine to make her an amalgamation of all the great leading lady icons. She's quite the drama queen, always pouting, depressed and crying.

The only one who shows restraint is Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), who is unerringly stoical and fatalistic (some might say wooden, but I disagree). He keeps it bottled up inside. Okay, sometimes he does go out of control, but it's only when others have provoked him.

Yes, the acting and cornball plot are all so over the top that Fah Talai Jone might be considered satire along with lines of Blazing Saddles. In lieu of a baked beans campfire scene, Dum and Mahasuen pledge their friendship together by getting drunk on snake blood wine in the presence of a Buddha statue. It's another dizzying scene.

Comedy reaches its high point with the character Sgt Yam, a government solider. Sporting a Charlie Chaplin brush moustache and slight build, he's a definite reference to the Little Tramp.

On inspection before the big raid, the little Sgt Yam reports he has seven wives.

"Well, I'm afraid they will all be widows," the inspecting officer says.

Yam proves to be an expert grenade thrower. He tosses one up into a machine gun nest, conks a guy on the head and knocks him out. The grenade doesn't go off.

"Request permission to throw another," says Yam. And he tosses. And the tower blows up in a fireball with a stuntman diving away out of the flames. Spectacular.

The set designs, colors and wide-eyed sensibilities remind me for some reason of Wizard of Oz. I think it was a conscious effort on the part of the director, which he reinforced by including a midget among the extras in the outlaw gang.

This is one movie I can't recommend enough. It's goofy, but so tragic. It's familiar, yet so different. It is indeed, a very special film.

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