Tears of the Black Tiger
Reviewed by Roderick Chia
Thai title: Fa talai jone
Director: Wisit Sasanatieng
Writing Credits: Wisit Sasanatieng
Cast: Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi
Year Released: 2000
Runtime: 115 mins
Rating: *** (out of four stars)
A sculpted, brooding, gun-slinging hero. A beautiful, tragic heroine. Mustachioed villains. Cowboy-bandits. And lonesome prairie. The makings of a Western are all there, if one didnt realize that Tears of the Black Tiger is set in a different time and place.
The story follows the lives of two childhood friends, Dum and Rumpoey. The latter is a city girl whose family evacuates Bangkok during the Second World War to stay with Dums family in the countryside of Supanburi. For a while they grow up, not quite as childhood sweethearts, then as friends with an unspoken bond. Nine years later they meet whilst studying at a college in Bangkok, and Dum (played by Chartchai Ngamsan) renews his friendship with Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi). After Dums initial refusal to even acknowledge her, events bring them back together and their old childhood affection predictably develops into love. But a series of obstacles appear, and they have to overcome those in order to stay together.
Not only does Rumpoeys father disapprove of the match, but when Dum returns to his village he finds that his family has been slaughtered by the village headman who wants to take over the fathers place as district chief. Dum joins up with a bandit gang led by Fai to avenge them, rises up the ranks to become the chiefs right-hand man and becomes known as Seua Dum, or Black Tiger. Meanwhile, Rumpoey is reluctantly engaged to Captain Kumjorn, a police officer sent to the countryside under orders from Rumpoeys father, now the provincial governor, to rid the area of Fai and his bandits.
The old clichés are there (parental disapproval; hes a poor country boy, shes a rich city girl), but they never get in the way of the story. In fact the clichés enhance the return to the 1950s tradition of Thai movie storytelling. Director and writer Wisit Sasanatieng, part of the New Wave of Thai cinema, juxtaposes old and new on a nostalgic trip; the visuals and pace are never dull: even long, drawn-out scenes are enlivened by a sense of anticipation and the retro look fused with a modern sensibility like good pacing help to move the film along. It is no coincidence that the vividness of the film represents the Thai use of bright, even clashing colors, and look as if they were painted onto each frame in fact they were digitally enhanced.
Not so enhanced is the sometimes-stilted dialogue, mostly on Dums part. It could be that it was essential to the role of the stoic, selfless hero who does not need to say much but whose eyes and facial expressions speak volumes.
There is a sense of surrealism in scenes where Dum coolly brushes himself off and runs away after falling down a tree during a gunfight. In other parts, Sasanatieng sticks to more conventional storytelling by using linkages: a harmonica given to Dum from Rumpoey as a childhood present becomes an eternal keepsake and is played throughout the movie, and saves Dums life by stopping a bullet. Then there is the trio of bullies who torment Dum and Rumpoey as children, who reappear as adults at the college where they are studying. These links seem not only to bind the two sweethearts through time, they also bind them to the end.
With a soundtrack comprising of folksy Thai ballads and cowboy tunes that would not sound out of place in a classic Western (complete with a spitting cowboy), the makers of Tears of the Black Tiger may have helped to create a new genre; the film is even billed as A Classic Thai Western. A Thai Western romance-drama, anyone?
Notable mentions: Tiger was awarded the Vancouver International Film Festivals Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema to the most creative and innovative first or second feature-length film by a new director from Pacific Asia. It was also the first Thai film to screen in selection at Cannes.