Better late than never, Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng‘s pink-and-aquamarine western “Tears of the Black Tiger” finally arrives in U.S. theaters nearly six years after it first premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Shelved by Miramax, dropped by The Weinstein Co. and now rescued from oblivion by Magnolia Pictures, the comedic, cowboy melodrama has lost none of its colorful luster in the intervening years.
[EDITORS NOTE: This story was corrected to reflect the fact that the film premiered at the Vancouver festival, not in Cannes.]
Set in a Thai fantasy frontier-land, where nefarious bandits roam the outback wearing green pants and teal scarves, “Tears” tells the story of ill-fated lovers, Dum, a gunslinger with a skillful ricochet shot, and Rumpoey, the aristocratic governor’s daughter. The tale may sound familiar, but the telling is entirely new: From instant replays to silent-movie-style tricks to slo-mo Peckinpah-inspired bloodbaths to a slapstick dancing dwarf, there’s only one thing missing from “Tears”: some majestic song-and-dance numbers. Instead, mournful Thai ballads play on the soundtrack, echoing Dum’s sad life as a poor cowboy pining away for his childhood love.
The flat acting and startling color scheme can be off-putting, but after an awkwardly paced beginning, the films finds its way with a flashback that sets up the characters. Ten years earlier, rich-girl Rumpoey flirts with peasant-boy Dum; during a rowboat excursion through the azure lily pads and pink flowers, an aggressive young bully and his co-horts intercept the couple. Dum tries to save the day, but temporarily loses Rumpoey in the (literally) red river. Scarred for life and scolded by his father, Dum realizes Rumpoey is out of his league.
The two star-crossed paramours – surprise, surprise – meet again as adults. But now Rumpoey must marry Kumjorn, a handsome young chief of police, and Dum has become an outlaw after seeking revenge for his father’s murder. As “the best gunslinger in the world,” Dum – a.k.a. “Black Tiger” – plays a mean harmonica, strikes up a friendship with rival outlaw and pencil-thin moustached Mahasuan, and defends his fellow bandits against an invading police force with a bazooka. But the sensitive and forlorn Black Tiger only longs to see Rumpoey again.
The story plays several masculine rivalries against each other: Dum is not only pitted against Kumjorn, but a jealous Mahasuan who wants to reclaim his status as #1 gunslinger in the gang. The plot machinations eventually fit together in such a satisfying way that Sasanatieng’s visual flourishes become the least of the film’s pleasures. In fact, the more cliches fulfilled – from the Morricone-style music cues to the final showdown in the rain – the more fun it is. What better way to mount the film’s rousing climax then after Rumpoey’s wedding, as herds of bandits mount an attack against the police-guarded governor’s house, just as Kumjorn plans to rape Rumpoey? Can Dum save the day this time?
What makes “Tears” unique is its turquoise, pinks and oranges, anything-goes-tone and expressionistic sets. But what makes it endure, six years and counting, is its classic tale of class difference and tragic love (and, of course, there’s that bazooka).