Wisit Sasanatieng‘s "Tears of the Black Tiger" lavishly evokes the brightly colored Thai genre films of the 50s and 60s, particularly those of Rattana Pestonji â€” and if you’re unfamiliar with them, well, according to the press notes, so is the average moviegoer in Thailand, a country with no tradition of repertory screenings. There’s a cinematic koan for you: Is a pastiche a pastiche if no one in the audience has any idea what it’s referencing?
Not that you need footnotes to understand the plot of "Tears of the Black Tiger," which tells your average "poor boy and rich girl fall in love but are kept apart because of class differences; poor boy becomes a famous bandit" tale. Poised at the crossroads of cheesy melodrama and cheesy Western, the film makes gleeful use of abandoned vocabulary â€” when the lovers, grown-up and reunited, take a car ride together, the road unfurling behind them is not only clearly the product of rear projection, it’s also in black and white. Elsewhere, after a particularly wicked action sequence, the film pauses, then genially revisits the key moment in slow motion for anyone who might have missed it. A gunfight takes place in front of a painted backdrop, while a naively romantic scene is et on a lake among lotuses that are so far beyond Technicolor they could be irradiated. A villain’s mustache is literally penciled on; there is, for no reason other than as an over-the-top sight gag, a gun-toting bandit dwarf. Everything mimics a broad, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, and yet "Tears of the Black Tiger" isn’t all that fun to watch. Sasanatieng takes clear delight in every stylized detail, from his beautiful, wooden leads to his consciously choppy continuity, but ultimately the experience is bewildering and about as engaging as the experience of watching someone else enjoy a nice-looking steak â€” you’re happy for them, but you’re also kind of hungry. Wavering between camp and dead-serious homage, the film doesn’t comes down on one side until the final third, when earnestness overwhelms kitsch and the drama becomes unexpectedly compelling, the strangeness of the intense stylization finally settling in in time for a gloriously tragic ending. "It seems that life is just great and terrible sadness," we’re informed. If only the rest of the film had been so clear about what it was going for.
Opens in New York on January 12th.
+ "Tears of the Black Tiger" (Magnolia Pictures)