The following review is part of the Foreign Western Blogathon, hosted by Debbie V. from Moon in Gemini, looking at a traditionally American genre through a different lens.
“The movie harks back to traditional knowledge, like old herbs we used to boil and drink, which now come in capsules. Like our film, we mixed it with modern film language for a current audience. If it was just an old movie, nobody would be interested. We just borrowed its form, techniques, and combined it with contemporary film language.” – Wisit Sasanatieng
Over the years, many talented foreign filmmakers have tinkered with a genre that was once regarded as the exclusive domain of Hollywood, to create something simultaneously familiar and completely new. A successful reinterpretation of the Western requires more than simply changing the location or shuffling the actors, but changing the cultural perspective, by utilizing familiar conventions as a launching point rather than a destination. One such example is the Thai Western mash-up, Tears of the Black Tiger, a melodrama about star-crossed lovers that infuses the familiar tropes of American Westerns with Thai sensibilities. Setting his film in post-WW II Thailand, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng blends old-fashioned and contemporary elements, resulting in something uniquely classic and post-modern.
Dum, aka “Black Tiger” (Chartchai Ngamsan), the film’s antihero protagonist, lives outside the law yet adheres to a strict internal moral code. He works as an enforcer for the ruthless crime boss, Fai (Sombat Metanee), becoming his right-hand man (much to the irritation of fellow outlaw Mahesuan, played by Supakorn Kitsuwon, who formerly occupied that vaunted position). In a flashback, we witness how he meets the love of his life, Rumpoey, the high-born daughter of a local governor. The young girl goads peasant boy Dum into taking her out on a boat, where they discover a sala (a sort of Thai gazebo) floating amidst the lily pads. At that moment, they vow to make this their meeting place. Events take a near-tragic turn when they encounter a trio of bullies, and she nearly drowns in the ensuing scuffle. When he eventually returns home with her near-lifeless body, he’s severely punished by his father (who works for her father). Flash forward 10 years, and the adult Rumpoey (played by Italian-Colombian actress Stella Malucchi) is betrothed to Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). Instead of sharing his joy, she only feels empty, as her heart belongs to Dum.
Contrasting the rather conventional story of lovers separated by rigid class roles, is a delightfully unconventional pastiche of styles. Sasanatieng draws as much upon glossy Technicolor Hollywood cowboy dramas as gritty “spaghetti” Westerns to play in his cinematic sandbox. One scene illustrates via instant replay how Dum is the quickest gun in Thailand. He’s so skillful that he intentionally aims his pistol, so the bullet ricochets off the interior of a cabin to hit his mark. In another scene, he squares off against a rival gunfighter, accompanied by a surreal painted background.
Tears of the Black Tiger owes much of its distinctive look to post-production visual trickery. The footage was initially shot on 35 mm black-and-white film, transferred to tape for digital editing (including the addition of color), and finally transferred back to film. Many of the colorful scenes feature vivid pinks, reds and greens, while in one sequence, set at a train station, the hues are purposely muted, with digital scratches applied to mimic archival footage. In another scene, when Rumpoey and Dum are seated in the back seat of her chauffeur-driven car, the foreground remains in color, while the projected background through the car windows is in black and white.
Sasanatieng frequently plays with the artifice of motion pictures, favoring striking visual compositions and willfully anachronistic depictions over any pretense of realism. While the bandits ride horses and dress in traditional (albeit stylized) cowboy garb, the film remains firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, as they fight the police with machine guns, bazookas and hand grenades. The soundtrack is also a mix of old and new, filled with musical interludes (consisting of vintage Thai pop songs alongside new interpretations by contemporary artists). Tears of the Black Tiger at once celebrates the joy of filmmaking while a streak of a melancholic fatalism runs throughout. According to Sasanatieng, “Thais believe that destiny leads us down the right path,” which ultimately informs the inevitable path the plot must follow. It’s a self-aware exercise in style steeped in Eastern and Western tradition, making this an unforgettable experience.