Tears of the Black Tiger Review

Roughly a decade ago, I wrote a programme note for John Woo's The Killer that described it as "Douglas Sirk meets Sam Peckinpah, a loopily romantic melodrama with a triple-figure body count" - a description that's even more true of what must be the most certifiably bonkers film of the year.

The national critics claimed "you've never seen anything like this before", which isn't quite true if you're more familiar with South-East Asian cinema than they evidently are - I for one noticed strong thematic similarities with the only other Thai film I've seen, Nang Nak (1998), which just happened to have been directed by Tears of the Black Tiger's producer Nonzee Nimibutr, and the general blend of passion-drenched romance and blood-spurting violence is one that Bollywood and Hong Kong cinema fans will be pretty comfortable with by now, even if it looks decidedly peculiar to more Western-oriented sensibilities.

But even taking that into account, Tears of the Black Tiger is still pretty far out on a limb. For starters, it's a Western, not a genre generally associated with this part of the world, and one of the many pleasures of the film is seeing the way traditional Western motifs (ten-gallon hats, spurs, Colt revolvers) have been shoehorned into an obviously Thai setting - the constant rain and lush tropical foliage are a million miles from Dodge City.

But the influence of Leone and Peckinpah is clear and unmistakable - the bandits' theme tune is almost a note-perfect rendition of Morricone's 'The Ecstasy of Gold' from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and there are plenty of nods to Once Upon a Time in the West (the harmonica, the hatbrim acting as a water trap) and The Wild Bunch (just about every shootout turns into an orgy of slow-motion violence, drenching the screen in blood, brains and even teeth in one particularly memorable shot). I also wouldn't be the least bit surprised if director Wisit Sartsanatieng had seen Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead.

Primarily, though, Tears of the Black Tiger is a love story, one so overwrought that it feels more like the ultra-stylised likes of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or a Guy Maddin film than anything conventional - although the characters don't actually sing, there are plenty of songs on the soundtrack telling us how tragic their romance is and how it's all guaranteed to end badly.

The romance in question is between Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan) and Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), an archetypal pair of star-cross'd lovers: he's a peasant, while she's the daughter of the local landowner. Despite their obvious attraction, every encounter from childhood onwards ends badly, usually with Dum getting beaten up by everyone from the local hoodlums to his own father. Finally, after Dum's family is massacred, he joins a group of bandits and develops his shooting skills to the point where he becomes the legendary Black Tiger, feared throughout the nation. Meanwhile, though, Rumpoey has been betrothed to the local police captain, who has very firm views on law and order in general and the activities of the Black Tiger in particular...

So far so familiar, but what gives this film its peculiar distinction (apart from it being a Western) is the eccentric visual style. The dominant colours are pink and turquoise (some shots could be reproduced as the cover of Mills & Boon novels), sunsets are lurid painted backdrops without even the merest pretence of realism, and the acting is, to put it mildly, somewhat declamatory (the rather more subtle Nang Nak proves that this isn't just a typical Thai acting style).

The embodiment of this is the chief villain (Supakorn Kitsuwon), who combines a wonderfully fake-looking pencil moustache with an exotically colourful dress sense and a stentorian Brian Blessed-style voice (and laugh!) that sounds particularly incongruous emanating from his slight Asian frame. The film livens up immensely whenever he's on screen, which is just as well as the lovers' endless wittering does grate a bit after a while (apparently the version under review was shortened by some ten minutes, and I'm willing to bet we lost more romance than gunplay!).

But for all the longueurs, Tears of the Black Tiger is enormously entertaining, and the more adventurous should lap it up. The distributors are clearly hoping for a Crouching Tiger-style crossover hit, which I honestly can't see happening (it's just too weird for most Western sensibilities), but it's immensely encouraging that this is showing in British cinemas at all. Coming so soon after the crushing disappointment of Planet of the Apes (OK for a mindless summer blockbuster, but you'd never guess in a million years that it was by the crazed genius who made Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or Mars Attacks!), it's welcome proof that genuinely down-on-all-fours howling-at-the-moon cinema hasn't been totally crushed by studio bean counters.

Overall

8

out of 10

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