It’s no wonder why Tears of the Black Tiger is a cult favourite. A product of the Thai New Wave movement of the late nineties and early noughts, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng’s film is madcap, frantic and, though billed as a western, is a thoroughly unrecognisable example of the genre – but is very much aware of the fact.
Sasanatieng said in interview the film was partly a reaction to Thai audiences’ apparent distaste for homegrown cinema. This does explain the vast homages to westerns from the likes of Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks, as well as nods to 1953’s From Here to Eternity and the works of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. Yet even with all the allusions to its outside influences, Sasanateing still manages to give Tears of the Black Tiger a distinctive, uniquely Thai feeling.
Chartchai Ngansam plays the Black Tiger of the title, a sharp-shooting enforcer for gang boss Fai (Sombat Metanee). When we first see him, he and his associate Mahesuan (Supakron Kitsuwon, sporting a knowingly fake moustache) enter the house of a rival gang member and Black Tiger pulls off a gun shot so improbable and cool, the film shows it again in slow motion just to emphasise how improbable and cool it was.
Apparently jealous of Black Tiger’s rising stock in the gang, Mahesuan approaches him as he is playing harmonica against a painted backdrop and challenges him to a duel. Black Tiger can not be beaten in a quick draw, but he spares Mahesuan’s life, and the two then proceed to swear a blood oath in a Buddhist temple and get drunk on wine.
Through flashback, we get to see what Black Tiger was like as a young man, and he couldn’t have been more different. He was an unassuming boy named Dum who was not prone to violence, but a moment of tragedy led him to pick up a shotgun, where it turned out he was a natural. Fai recognises his shooting talents and helps him exact the revenge he wanted, but at the price of becoming a wanted outlaw.
Meanwhile, tying the film together is Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), who, as a young girl, had her heart won by Dum. Though he did have feelings for her, Dum was reluctant to act on them because of the large wealth gap between them, despite Rumpoey’s frequent admissions of affection. As his new life as Black Tiger begins, Dum disappears, leaving Rumpoey heartbroken. In her grief, and believing she will never see him again, she agrees to marry Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), the local chief of police and, coincidentally, the man tasked with catching Black Tiger.
In between the major story elements are the film’s marquee moments of madness, which include include moments told through song, shootouts with missiles, and kill shots that are equally ingenious, elaborate and baffling. It’s clear that Sasanatieng is a director not afraid to try anything, and Tears of the Black Tiger’s self-awareness and low-budget ingenuity gives him great scope to do so.
Falling into that sensibility is Fai’s gang, who all wear Stetsons and neckerchiefs, carry revolves and ride horses – the only thing recognisably western in this otherwise modern landscape. The clothing, weaponry and transport of every other character is modern, and the colour scheme uses a lot more vibrant pinks and blues over the more rugged tones of a traditional western. There is also no internal explanation for why Fai’s gang operates this way, which makes it all the more amusing.
While this film’s aesthetic is not overly-recognizable as a western, its themes of redemption, individual heroics and lost love are all in-keeping with the genre. What’s more, Sasanatieng also finds time to address more pressing issues, such as class warfare and the failings of upholding outdated societal values and conventions. After all the absurdity, it’s a little bit surprising to see that behind its giddy exterior there is a (somewhat) sensible side to the film.
On initial release, Tears of the Black Tiger was a hit outside of Thailand, receiving critical acclaim and becoming the country’s first entry to Cannes. However, the film was cut by its international distributor Miramax in an attempt to broaden its appeal (Harvey Weinstein’s evil knows no bounds). That didn’t work. The version available today is not the original version, but is still very much worth seeking out.
Tears of the Black Tiger is showing at New York’s Walter Reade Theatre on July 5th as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. It is also available on DVD from Magnolia Pictures.
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