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Though there are exceptions, Asian cinema is known for its adherence to genre: Japan makes samurai and monster movies, Hong Kong produces gangster and kung fu flicks, and Korea delivers horror and cold-war jitters. A group of films opening this week, however, blurs those distinctions. Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs trilogy is indeed gangster fare (albeit of unusually high quality), but Korea’s The Host ventures into Godzilla’s territory. And Thailand’s Tears of the Black Tiger is a candy-colored, rice-noodle Western that’s more in the spirit of Jacques Demy than John Ford.
Writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng’s film opens far from Monument Valley, in a garden whose hues are closer to neon than anything in nature. A woman in an electric-fuchsia dress walks to a multi-colored sala, a Thai-style gazebo, where she waits for a man who will arrive too late. She is Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), an aristocratic beauty; he is Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), aka the Black Tiger, a poor boy who became an outlaw and “the best gunslinger on Earth.” As a series of flashbacks reveals, the two met as children but were separated by class. They encountered each other again as college students and fell in love; then, in response to his father’s brutal murder, Dum became a bandit.
Dum works for Fai (Sombati Medhanee), a classic movie villain with an exemplary pencil-thin mustache and lines that could have come from silent-film intertitles. (“Danger! I love danger!”) Dum learns that he has two rivals: sidekick Mahasuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), who resents the Black Tiger’s ascent within the gang, and Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), a police captain who has been promised the hand of the reluctant Rumpoey. This can’t end well. In fact, Tears of the Black Tiger’s delirious timbre demands a sorrowful ending.
The story features six-guns, horses, and cowboy duds, but the film feels like a Western mostly because of the harmonica-heavy score, which combines Thai pop with hints of Ennio Morricone and Aaron Copland. Otherwise, the film is overwhelmingly Asian, from its vivid artificial colors and cartoonish violence—including Hong Kongnstyle bullet ballets—to its mix of action and melancholy. A hit at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival that was bought and warehoused for several years by Miramax, Tears of the Black Tiger is essentially a curiosity piece. It smashes the boundaries of genre filmmaking without transcending its essence. Yet the movie’s intense colors, robust action, and furious passions compensate well for that lack of depth. If you’re only going to see one Thai romance-Western—and who knows where to find another?—make it this one.