Time Never Stands Still, Especially Happy Time: Tears Of The Black Tiger (2000)

I am fully willing to admit that Thai cinema, amongst a ton of other regional cinemas has proven to be one of my most under viewed areas, and while I have seen at least one Thai film to date I do not recall being in the right frame of mind to appreciate its deliberate pacing and focused narrative, which is a shame because I am certain that with a different frame of reference I would have absolutely adored the work.  Nonetheless, when I discovered Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger hiding in the deep caverns of Netflix watch instantly it looked far too excellent to pass up as an inclusion on my entire month of westerns.  Of course, I fully expected it to be a traditionalist work within the framework of non-western bodies, but what I got with this film was something wildly its own and visually captivating, possessing what may well be my new favorite color palette for a film.  It is a highly pastel based backdrop, almost indicative of the sixties era east asian post-cards and album covers that involve light green and pink patterns to a high degree, a style that would become embraced by the punk movement only years later.  Furthermore, all of the love for Django Unchained, deserved as it may be, often forgets to remember that all Tarantino really does is copy and paste his films together based off of a ton of crazy things he has already encountered in his vast and surprisingly well-rounded film diet.  It is easy to see where a filmmaker like Tarantino, as well as many Korean and other contemporary East Asian auteurs would have borrowed from Sasanatieng's cult classic, both in its decided embracing of the non-linear narrative, while also making decided use of the glossy, high cinema respect that comes with the western genre.  Each rawhide fueled swelling of the soundtrack pairs magnificently with the simple, yet earnest, love story that emerges within Tears of the Black Tiger and never seems forced or repetitive, despite being a film that essentially recreates encounters between specific characters over a varied length of a couple of decades.  Suffice it to say, if this is what I have been missing out on by not engaging with Thai cinema, consider it a new point of reference and the next area of focus when I do one of my marathons reflecting on works that I have failed to catch up with up until this point.

Tears of the Black Tiger is not exactly the most straightforwards of narratives, but it nonetheless does have a degree of linear structure.  The film focuses on a rural area in Thailand that is subject to a particularly rough group of bandits that have been very frequently and very violently scouring the hillsides for money.  Their main figure is that of Dom (Suwinit Panjamawat) a reluctant bandit whose only real passion in life is to make a name for himself in order to assure a life with the upper crust Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) of whom he has been quite fond of since childhood when the two took a canoe ride together.  In a particular shootout between Dom and a group of police officers, wherein Dom is attempting to make contact with his love, he is trapped by the  officers and dealt with personally by the lead officer, who indeed is slated to marry the young woman, per the bequest of her father who sees the upstanding officer of the law a much more ideal fit for his daughter than any lowlife, and impoverished thief.  Already facing the trouble of authorities down his back, doubly so when his intentions with Rumpoey are fully acknowledged, things are made far worse for the suffering Dom when his own gang members suspect him of engaging in duplicitous behavior and in the process turning their own guns against him.  All the while Dom is dealing with apparent deja vu as he finds himself defending Rumpoey against a group of wily men who mock him for his aspirations with such a woman, but the difference between their initial encounter in Dom's youth and their recent one is a decided disconnect from concerns for harming those antagonizing him and he proves himself an ideal match for Rumpoey in his willingness to sacrifice himself for her well being.  Of course, no amount of establishing his love for Rumpoey, nor her returning of such feelings, can allow for Dom to find solace, because he is still forced to deal with his maniacal gang members and in a poetic final shootout, Dom attempts to reach for a picture of Rumpoey to explain why his actions have been so unusual, only to be shot by a member assuming that he was reaching for his gun.  Dom dies and in the closing moments all that is left is a visual memory of the bond between the two star-crossed lovers, one that was never to be based solely on unjust class divides.

This film is a visual experience, between its heavy use of pastel colors and fiery, almost incandescent lighting, Tears of the Black Tiger fails to have any visual competitors, maybe with the exception of the equally stylized Pedro Almodovar, who films are very much cinematic pop art.  Furthermore, it is precisely in this comparison that I want to talk about the manner with which Tears of the Black Tiger deals with the trope of violence within the western.  Almodover, a well-established director, often uses his highly stylized and comic stripe style visual elements to suggest something humorous, if not out right absurd about sexuality and gender performance.  This sort of detachment allows for viewers to become comfortable with the topic only to have the director eventually slap a very real and ethically fueled dilemma into the discussion, one that refuses to embrace conservative values.  I would extend this frame of reference to Sasanatieng's film, especially considering that it is a film that makes heavy, if not excessive, use of egregious and gratuitous gore.  Although given the pastel wash that lays upon the film it is, like Almodovar, quite humorous and almost laughable when men's heads explode into pink ooze, only to be completely ignored and moved away as though a simulacrum or virtual experience completely detached from human loss.  The notion of death and loss is quite frequent within the western as a genre and what Sasanatieng does within Tears of the Black Tiger is not new per se, he is simply the first one to do it in such a sensational and absurd manner.  Yet, if this violence were to merely go unchecked I would find this film to be far more problematic, but that is far from the case and, again, like Almodovar, Sasanatieng makes sure to incorporate the reality of loss beyond the corporeal within the final moments of the film, depicting the images of both Dom and Rumpoey in picture frames and the credits begin to roll.  Sure viewers are allowed to revel in the excess and violence while the film rolls, but it is not a reality which one should subscribe to for any reason, and the closing credits suggest that violence in cinema, most notably westerns has a degree of falseness about it, but memories do linger and for many in the world they are very much a result of an insane and unwarranted act of violence.

Key Scene:  Shooting a bullet through coin.

Again this is available on Netflix watch instantly, you should bump it way of in the queue immediately.

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