'Black Tiger' exults in cheesy, hilarious melodrama
The lovesick heroine of "Tears of the Black Tiger" spends the whole movie sitting around waiting for her man to come back to her. She waits under a gazebo in the rain. She waits at a table in her family's mansion. She waits wherever she can, and while she waits a tear glistens down her cheek and the runny ballads on the soundtrack tell us how exactly she feels: sad, so sad. Her agony is the stuff of an epic karaoke video, the longest, prettiest one ever made. The movie, on the other hand, is absolute meta-cinematic delirium.
A parody of and winking homage to the history of Thai melodrama, Wisit Sasanatieng's uproarious filmmaking debut exuberantly combines pop and kitsch with a wholesome belief in the thrills of bad art. Our heroine, Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi ), is the governor's daughter and the promised bride of Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth ), a pretty-boy police captain. The man she truly loves, Seua Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan ), has become a bandit -- the titular gun-slinging Black Tiger -- in order get closer to the posse that killed his father.
None of this is to suggest that "Tears of the Black Tiger" is a work of conventional professionalism. The amateurism is merrily ubiquitous. It's also a joke. The film looks and feels nothing like the work of Sasanatieng's current Thai peers. But he does share the seeming national disdain for realism. (For the last several years Thailand has been the go-to nation for rhapsodic filmmaking.)
Somehow, "Black Tiger" arouses the sensations it purports to mock -- ardor, earnestness, bliss -- without sacrificing its sense of humor. That cheesy love story is loosely hitched to the convoluted cowboy revenge plot (a Pad Thai western, if you must), and the fusion is knowingly arch and knowingly over-the-top.
The backdrops are phony (rolling plains, for instance, are topped off with a golden sun whose center has been cut out; it's like a set from Pee-Wee's playhouse), and the performances are phonier: If one actor, in a expression of villainy, tosses his head back and bellows, "Ha ha ha ha ha!" they all do. Sasanatieng ratchets up the absurdity with, say, a tracking close-up so every time a character tilts his back, it's funny for a slightly different reason. Ditto for the camera placement. I never thought the old panning shot through a gunslinger's open legs would be amusing, but here there's enough derriere in the shot for it to seem like a hasty accident.
With its bogus dusks, super-oversaturated color scheme (the reddest of reds, the turquoisest of turquoises), and hilariously choreographed and edited fight sequences, "Black Tiger" challenges the illusion of moviemaking without puncturing the illusion itself. This is something the films of Busby Berkeley, Kenneth Anger, and Guy Maddin manage to do: create a vivid mirage. One man's bloodbath here is another's tub of Hawaiian Punch.
The fakeness is fantastical. If you can't believe in the fantasy, then you can certainly appreciate the rigor behind such goofy filmmaking. In the opening minutes, Dum leaps into a shootout. And a ricocheting bullet has so impressed Sasanatieng that he shows it again from another angle. Of course, he does ask if we want to see to it twice. But as is the case with the rest of this ambitiously silly movie, resistance is futile.