Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Blissfully Thai: Tears of the Black Tiger

Seua Dum became an outlaw for traditional western reasons—somebody shot his Pa. There are no buffalo roaming across the great plains of Thailand, but there are plenty of golden sunsets and sad cowboy songs in Wisit Sasanatieng’s wonderfully idiosyncratic western Tears of the Black Tiger (trailer here), which screens this Friday as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s ongoing retrospective of Thai cinema.

Rumpoey Rajasena has loved Dum, a.k.a. the Black Tiger, ever since they were children. Unfortunately, he is one of Fai’s gang of outlaws, whereas she is engaged to Captain Kumjorn, the police captain charged with bringing them to justice. Right, good luck with that. Frankly, the uptight copper is lucky to be alive. His assault on Fai’s tigers goes spectacularly badly, but Dum spares his life upon discovery his connection to Rajasena. Indeed, Dum might be an outlaw, but he never passes up an opportunity for existential angst.

Tiger scrupulously observes the western genre conventions, but its artillery is definitely Twentieth Century—so much the better for generating body counts. However, the wardrobe, Thai country songs, and striking visuals are pure Roy Rogers, by way of Southeast Asia.

Deliberately eschewing verisimilitude, Sasanatieng’s use of bold saturated colors evoke a western vibe, but are stylistically more closely akin to the painterly dreamscapes of Kobayashi’s Kwaidan than the Monument Valley vistas of John Ford westerns. It lends Tiger a trippiness that will certainly earn the film a place in the cult film pantheon.

Frankly, no matter how hard they try to go over the top, Sasanatieng largely overwhelms his game cast with his garish color palette and gleefully cartoonish violence. So be it. Still, Stella Malucchi nicely channels her inner soap opera heroine, hitting the appropriate weepy overwrought notes as Rajasena. For his part, Chartchai Ngamsan tries to project romantic intensity as the crying on the inside (and the outside) gunslinger, but his strong sensitive hero can hardly compete with everything else Sasanatieng throws on screen.

Without question, Sasanatieng’s entire creative team deserve props for their work on Tiger, particularly including cinematographer Nattawut Kittikhun, costume designer Chaiwichit Somboon, composer Amornbhong Methakunavudh, and art directors Akradech Keaw Kotr and Rutchanon Kayangnan. Yes, remember those names, please. In truth, Tiger is a viewing experience much like Nobuhiko Ȏbayashi’s surreal House. You leave the theater thinking maybe you really have seen everything now. Dazzlingly inventive, Tiger screens this Friday (6/10) at the Asia Society as part of the consistently entertaining Blissfully Thai series.