The only thing more exotic than sampling the pop-culture legends of a foreign culture is revisiting America’s pop-culture legends as taken up by a foreign culture and refashioned into something rich and strange. The odd Thai artifact Tears of the Black Tiger (Magnolia Pictures) is much more than a Western—it’s a lurid weeper and a tribute to genre cinema and a celebration of Thai folk art—but it couldn’t exist without Sergio Leone’s version of the American West, which in turn couldn’t exist without the Hollywood Western. And if this all sounds like a recipe for too-clever-by-half self-reflexive trickery, here’s the weirdest twist of all: Tears of the Black Tiger is strangely, almost achingly, earnest.
You know you’re not in Kansas (or Hollywood, or Cinecittà) from the opening frames, in which a woman in a bougainvillea-pink dress walks through the rain to a turquoise-ceilinged gazebo. Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) is the daughter of a wealthy man, and the lover she awaits there is a poor country boy named Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan). Childhood friends, the two were separated by their class-conscious families, only to meet again as university students and fall in love. But alas, Rumpoey is engaged to a straight-arrow police captain, Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), while—in a subplot that seems to take place in an alternate reality—Dum has become a cowboy outlaw known as the Black Tiger.
The Black Tiger is not only a legendary marksman who can shoot snakes out of trees, but an enigmatic dreamer, given to playing a mournful love song on a harmonica inscribed with Rumpoey’s name. When he realizes his lover is lost to him, Dum joins up with a bandit gang, accompanied by his quick-on-the-draw buddy Mahuesan (Supakorn Kitsuwon), who may or not be planning to betray him (perhaps the glued-on villain’s mustache is a clue?). It’s only a matter of time until Kumjorn vows to find and arrest the Black Tiger, leaving Rumpoey torn between her fiance and the man she truly loves.
Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng, a commercial director making his first feature film, Tears of the Black Tiger is a technical and aesthetic marvel. Like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven or the work of the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, it recreates the look of a vintage film, not only in its costumes and sets, but in the very grain of its film stock. The movie’s use of supersaturated color is inventive and surprising: A train pulls into a station, its axles painted Pepto-Bismol pink. Sitting in the window of her teal-green bedroom, the heroine is silhouetted against a giant yellow moon. Dum plays his harmonica in a tree against a frankly fake backdrop of the setting sun.
For all the craft and filigree that went into Black Tiger’s gorgeous surfaces, its screenplay often drifts into repetition and incoherence (though it’s not unpleasant just to drift along with the imagery and give up on the plot). But what the story lacks in snap, it makes up for in sincerity. Tears of the Black Tiger’s melodrama is so poker-faced and its gore so explicit (if phony-looking) that it’s hard to tell whether you’re dealing with the Thai Todd Haynes or the Thai Sam Peckinpah. Reading the movie’s press notes, I’m inclined to believe that Wisit Sasanatieng is both: a brainy postmodern film scholar and a throwback to the unironic glory days of genre cinema. Press-kit prose tends to be among the poorest-written and worst-spelled of all literary forms, but these notes have a cerebral, almost philosophical ring: They define the sala, the traditional gazebo-like structure where the lovers plan their rendez-vous, as “an evocative, phenomenological space.” The same might be said of the mental zone you enter into while watching Tears of the Black Tiger: a synesthetic funhouse where color, music, and emotion converge, and where the most artificial of backdrops serves as a frame for the realest of tears.