Sydney audiences whose only contact with Thai cinema has been Iron Ladies (the comedy about the mostly gay and trany volleyball team that won the Thai national men’s volleyball championships) will be surprised to see a totally different type of camp in a new Thai film. Tears Of The Black Tiger, screening at the 3rd Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival this month, is by no means a gay film -“ the narrative is an ill-fated heterosexual romance -“ but, as San Francisco Chronicle writes, we know camp when we see it.
Tears is a cowboy romance that combines the conventions of the Thai genre cinema of the 50s and 60s -“ action cinema, westerns and melodrama -“ with a highly stylised pastiche of painted sets, lurid digitally-recoloured images and comic-style intertitles.
The hero, Dum, a good peasant boy turned bandit to avenge the murder of his father, seamlessly combines machismo and melancholy. As the Black Tiger, a strapping fast-shooting cowboy, smoke curling from the barrel of a gun is his motif. When he jumps on his horse and gallops away to a fatefully missed encounter with his beloved, it’s the melancholy tones of his harmonica that swirl around him. In a deliciously stylised set of ironic repetitions that structure the plot, Dum is called on again and again to defend the honour of the rich woman he loves and is repeatedly punished -“ whipped, beaten and shot -“ in the process. It’s a classic masochistic role of impossible love, but framed in a racy, hip, style that bolsters a sense of parody.
The director, Wisit Sasanatieng, trained in advertising like many of the new generation of directors who have rejuvenated and reinvented Thai cinema, fuelling talk of a Thai New Wave. Sasanatieng used his work as a director of commercials to experiment with the exquisite photography and tightly-controlled retro set design he uses in the film. The director, known for his avid knowledge of both western and Thai film heritage, has talked of his commitment to revive the rich tradition of Thai cinema, which once produced 100 films a year, and to retain a Thai flavour in his film. Over-saturated colours draw on both the visual conventions of early Thai films and old movie posters, and the gaudy palette of temples, clothing and advertising billboards that permeates Thai daily life. Into this mix, the film throws the seemingly incongruous influence of spaghetti westerns, 1950s Hollywood melodramas and Thai folk theatre, producing what Sasanatieng calls a tom yang gung western. As reviewer Russ Houghton writes, such coherent insanity only comes along once in a while.
Whether it’s the artifice of this kitsch, excessive style, or the lure of the sensitive butch lead that has tickled the fancy of reviewers, the film has generated a lot of attention in the international queer press. Described as a boys’ own adventure and a gay satire, the film reinvents the tropes of the old genre cinema in a sophisticated post-modern idiom that undercuts any na? viewing.
Tears Of The Black Tiger has won awards at major festivals, including best debut film at Vancouver Film Festival, and was the first Thai film ever included in official selection at Cannes. It took a gay and transgender film -“ Iron Ladies -“ to lead the way for Thai cinema into international distribution. Tears follows this lead with a slick and funny film that revels in the tried and true conventions of the heterosexual romance at the same time as it renders them farcical.
Tears Of The Black Tiger screens at the Dendy Cinema, Martin Place, on Friday 9 August, 9pm, and Sunday 11 August, 11am, as part of the 3rd Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival. The festival runs from 8 to 17 August. For further details on the film and festival, see www.sapff.com.au.