The Eye Candy of 'Tears of the Black Tiger'

Dennis Harvey February 6, 2007

Filmmaking in Thailand has been on an artistic roll for the last several years, a renaissance that got the seal of international acknowledgement in 2001, when “Tears of a Black Tiger” became the first Thai feature ever officially invited to Cannes.

Europeans (especially those Frenchies) often consider us Yanks to be a little culturally backward, and in this case they are correct: It has taken six long years for “Tears” to finally show up on regular U.S. theatre screens, long after its tour of festivals, DVD and VCD bins. (I got my copy in Chinatown for four bucks several years ago.)

Well, better late than never. And the big screen is where “Tears” really should be seen, since it’s eye candy to a positively cavity-risking degree. This exercise in campy genre pastiche is colorful the way, say, 1950s MGM musicals were — the color just about leaps off the screen and gives you an ocular smackdown.

This first feature by Wisit Sasanatieng is an homage to Westerns of that Hollywood era. But other classic movie conventions are also fair game for its over-the-top parody — for one thing, there’s enough machine gun action here for a dozen “Scarfaces.” Despite all ten-gallon-hat-wearing, quick-drawing and T’baccy-spittin’ amidst wide open spaces (though some of them are back-projected, or simply painted), it’s at heart something very Thai: A tragic star-crossed love story.

The deliberately convoluted flashback structure chronicles an impossible love between rich city girl Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), the Governor’s daughter, and poor peasant boy Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), whom she first meets during a childhood visit to the countryside. Ten years later, serial hard luck has turned him into the sharpest shooter in a bandit king’s marauding gang, while Rumpoey is betrothed to a straight-arrow young police captain. Needless to say, however, outlaw and debutante still burn with forbidden love for each other.

With its exaggeratedly iconic performances, eye-popping costumes (the heroine’s gowns are so loud they seem almost 3-D) and gorgeously fetishistic production design (her house is a riot of teal and fuchsia), “Tears of the Black Tiger” is kinda like a fashion model — best at standing around, looking great.

There’s not a whole lotta narrative drive here, something Sasanatieng would improve upon with his next film, 2004’s equally wacky “Citizen Dog.” (Since then he’s made a horror film, last year’s “Pen Choo Kab Pee” a.k.a. “The Unseeable,” and is now working on a martial arts flick that hopefully will prove his Zhang Yimou-style breakout to larger audiences.)

But an occasional lull while style clobbers substance does just limited harm to “Tears’” silly symphony of aesthetic excess. There’s plenty of candy-colored entertainment value in a movie whose shoot-em-up blood fountains out-gush Peckinpah; whose action can always pause for a lachrymose soundtrack ballad; whose brawny hero saves the heroine from imminent ravishment so many times it becomes a running joke; and whose art direction would make the classic cowpoke likes of John Wayne break out in he-manly hives.