Every time I go to my favorite Thai restaurant, Thai Elvis, the waitress asks me what level of spice I can handle. And no matter what lowball number I pick, my noodles come out at atomic 10.
Channel that trait for exaggeration into film, and director Wisit Sasantieng serves up Tears of the Black Tiger, a ridiculously rococo concoction that blends Peckinpah westerns with Baz Luhrmann emotionality before neon candy backdrops. In the opening sequence, the Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan), a pouty hired gun with supermodel lips, struts into his enemies’ joint. After mowing down a dozen men with gonzo facial hair, he sets out for his target—a small, shaky man sweating behind a post. Black Tiger, a.k.a. Dum, fires his revolver into the adjacent wall, and the bullet pings around like a pinball before devastating the man’s cranium. After a slo-mo replay titled “Did you catch that!”, Dum leaps on his horse and rides between a butter-cream sky and lavender grass as the theme song weeps about love and moons and heartbreak.
And as the title portends, he cries. A lot. See, his childhood girlfriend Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) was ripped away from him a decade before for the usual reasons: her wealth, his poverty. As a parting gift, she left him a harmonica. When he blows mournful ballads into it, his fellow assassins tease him, especially blood brother Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon). In turn, Dum harasses Mahesuan about his penciled-on pencil mustache—hilarious in close-up—and the way his eyes pop open when he draws his gun in anger. Instead, Dum channels his misery into his job, kept busy by boss Fai’s (Sombat Metanee) law that whoever betrays him dies.
Sasantieng’s over-the-top western homage is unapologetically silly. Scenes are punctuated by dramatic thunderclaps and gun-toting midgets riding tiny ponies. Rumpoey’s lipstick changes more often than her facial expression, and when Dum and Mahesuan lose ground in a ranch yard battle against the cops (led by Rumpoey’s fiance), they break out the missile launchers. But Tears of the Black Tiger is also the first Thai film to screen at Cannes—which could reflect less about Thai filmmaking than the Western view that Asian cinema has to be saturated in color and bullets—and it was snapped up by Miramax the day it premiered in 2001.
Six years is a long time to shelve a film. Cult film buffs snatched up its overseas DVDs as the buzz grew about this gonzo hyper-color melodrama. Does it measure up? As fine-tuned cinema, absolutely not, but that comparison is absurd. “It’s pure imagination and completely unrealistic,” said Sasantieng; like its painted backdrops, the film is flat and bright and best seen big. Watching—or rather, succumbing to—it requires accepting its alien landscape as though you’re a visitor who just disembarked on Mars. The sights are familiar, but with a twist, like Mahesuan’s black cowboy hat paired with a pink bandanna and lip gloss. But the idea that lingers longest in this goofy delight is that around the globe, we’re all still drawn to the same stories, as though all the tales in the world boil down to revenge and love and honor, not to mention a good horse.