March 04, 2007

MOVIES: Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000/US 2007)

I'd been hearing about this movie for years, ever since it started playing the festival circuit in 2001. Miramax bought the movie, and it became one of the many films that the company bought and never released for arcane financial reasons. Now the movie's finally being released, after having been sold to another distributor, and it's a marvelous thing to see.

Imagine that Douglas Sirk and John Ford collaborated on a movie, a flamboyantly melodramatic Western filmed in color so vivid and lurid as to make Technicolor look like Whistler's Mother. Picture a gang of bandits in turquoise shirts and raspberry ascots, a gunfight set against a painted lemon-yellow sunset, a bride in a wedding gown of carnation pink, and a final shootout that takes place in the rain on the greenest lawn the world has ever seen -- and all of it in Thai. That gets you part of the way to imagining what Tears of the Black Tiger is like.

The beautiful Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) has reluctantly given in to her father's wishes and agreed to marry police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), but her heart will always belong to childhood sweetheart Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), whom her father would never allow her to marry because he is a mere peasant. Dum has fallen in with a local gang of bandits, and is their top marksman, feared throughout the countryside as "the Black Tiger."

The plot zips merrily from one classic Western trope to the next. Will Fai, the leader of Dum's gang, pull off his scheme to attack Kumjorn's wedding? Will Dum betray Fai in order to protect Rumpoey? Will Mahesuan (who had been Fai's right-hand man before Dum came along) give in to his jealousy and betray Dum? Will Dum and Rumpoey ever find happiness?

Sasanatieng's movie (he's both writer and director) is both homage and parody to classic Western conventions, and it's gorgeously photographed in rich, saturated pastels that took my breath away. The score mixes Thai pop songs (at least, I assume they're pop songs), Dvorak's "Coming Home" melody (which serves as the unrequited love theme for Rumpoey and Kumjorn), and original music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh that seems equally inspired by Tiomkin and Badalamenti. Some may find the movie's gunfight sequences too gory, but they're done in a cartoonish style, so obviously excessive that it's hard to take it too seriously (I was reminded of Kill Bill, though there's significantly less violence here, and Sasanatieng doesn't pile on the blood quite as thick as Tarantino does).

It's a wild ride, but it's not just visual spectacle. The performances are fun to watch, and by the time that Dum, Rumpoey, and Kumjorn find themselves on that bright green lawn at the end of the movie, I was surprised by how much I cared what happened; the final turns of the plot are deeply moving, and their impact is diminished only slightly by the fact that you can see them coming a mile away.

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