Monday, November 6


When the Heavens Strike the Thieves

In 1999 and 2000 I spent exactly 500 days in Southeast Asia, the majority of them living and working as an English Teacher in the extremely pleasant city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was definitely "into movies" before then, but the experience was crucial to my personal cinephilia in that I saw for myself just how ubiquitous my country's national cinema was in the international film marketplace. A steady diet of only the latest and biggest Hollywood products that usually filled most of the city's cinema screens, had me hungering for another option in a way I'd never felt while growing up in a town filled with cinematic alternatives. Luckily, once I learned that certain Thai films were screened with English subtitles, I got a taste of the cinema that lay outside of a Hollywood-dictated marketplace. No film better represents that than the very first Thai film I saw in a movie theatre in a Chiang Mai mall: screenwriter and television commercial director Wisit Sasanatieng's first feature, Tears of the Black Tiger.

At the time the film wasn't called that, or anything else quite so floridly appealing to someone who didn't know much Thai. The English-language newspaper articles mentioning the film simply called it by its Romanized Thai title: Fah Talai Jone. I tried to get one of the Thai teachers at my school to translate that for me, but she seemed frustrated with trying to convey the nuance in English. The imdb entry for the film now tries to provide translation help, but at the time it only listed the Last Rain as an alternate English title. My favorite title is probably the one cited by Lisa Roosen-Runge in her Senses of Cinema report on the 19th Vancouver International Film Festival, at which the film won a prize. I've borrowed it for the title of this post, but will happily conform to Tears of the Black Tiger from here on in, even though it reminds me of how the cowboy/musical/romance hybrid was purchased for Miramax in 2001 by a pair of Weinstein brothers jealous of Sony's success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And then never released. And still never released. And still...

But I guess the heavens must have struck the thieves preventing the film from showing in this country for years. It looks like the film finally will have a limited theatrical engagement, at least here in Frisco. An advertisement in last week's Bay Guardian (the newsprint version) gave a sneak look at a few titles to appear on this Winter's Landmark Filmcalendar. These films play for a week, and sometimes more (though Terry Gilliam's Tideland just blew through for seven days and I missed it.) The final entry in the current calendar is the truly haunting documentary Iraq in Fragments, opening this Friday at the Opera Plaza. The next calendar opens up at the Lumiere November 17th with another doc, called Fuck, and it will also include such potentially intriguing selections as Man Push Cart and Backstage. I'm not sure at which theatre or at what date Tears of the Black Tiger will actually appear, but it should be sometime in the next three months or so. I cannot wait to see the film's gaudy color scheme projected from a 35mm print again, and to share the experience with a Frisco audience.

At the same time I don't want to oversell Tears of the Black Tiger. It was exactly what I needed as a Thai cinema newbie looking for a tangible alternative to the likes of Coyote Ugly and What Lies Beneath at the time. But I don't think it's going to please everyone, at least not those whose idea of a good time at the arthouse must involve highly nuanced characters or clever plots. Though I didn't quite fathom it on my first viewing six years ago, writer-director Wisit stitched together the film's narrative from the dusty clichés of Thai melodramas of decades past. Watching a DVD of the 1970 youth-oriented musical Tone recently, for example, I couldn't help but continually make mental connections between it and Wisit's film. But one doesn't need to have personal experience with Thai cinema classics to get what Tears of the Black Tiger is about; for one, many of the archetypes referred to are recycled from internationally-known films in the first place, so a passing familiarity with the likes of Rebel Without a Cause and the Wild Bunch should provide sufficient cultural context. Secondly, Wisit is paying tribute to an idealized conception of a bygone cinematic history that never existed quite as imagined, at least as much as he's tributing the cinema that actually did. This is where the hot-pink-and-turquoise dominant color scheme come in. As far as I know, no Thai films used a palate this garish until Wisit arrived on the scene, but the hand-painted "ephemera" of production stills and posters that accompanied and often outlasted the films they were created to promote, did often have such a look. Wisit's interpretation of this aesthetic makes Tears of the Black Tiger one of the most remarkable visual feasts I've ever laid eyes on.

Frisco audiences had a chance to see Wisit's second feature Citizen Dog at a film festival earlier this year. His third, the Unseeable, was just released in his home country. Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee in a recent article on Wisit employed perhaps the most enticingly, accurately, succinct description of the appeal of Tears of the Black Tiger I've yet seen, calling it a "specimen of post-everything cinema at its most conscious level: you're constantly reminded that you're watching a film, a lie, an artifact, a dream." I'm excited for Frisco audiences to at long last experience this waking dream along with me.

Nice to have you back in the blogosphere, Brian! And especially with such a fond post of one of my favorite films. Thanks.
Does it really feel like I've been away that long? I guess time on the 'net passes swiftly when you're busy doing other things.

Anyway, thanks for the welcome back! I'm still busy, but I just had to squeeze in time to write this post, since nobody else online is talking about a Tears of the Black Tiger US release right now.
Okay, just picked up the new Landmark SF Filmcalendar, and found out the dates Tears of the Black Tiger will be playing: it closes the calendar February 9-15. It looks like Magnolia Pictures took over the property from Miramax or the Weinsteins or whoever had it last.

Also on the schedule is Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant, January 29-February 1. And several other films I'd never heard of before, like Soap (December 22-28), Unconscious (December 29-January 4) and Absolute Wilson (January 12-18).
I saw SOAP at the Berlin & Beyond film festival. It's such an odd gender tussle but heartwarming nonetheless.
Final reminder of the Alfred Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon on November 15th over @!
Creating an alternative aesthetic is hard when deluged with beigness.
Michael, thanks for the word (or nine) on Soap.

squish, I'm sad to say that it looks like I will probably not be able to participate in tomorrow's Blog-a-Thon, except as a commenter on others' posts. I love Hitchcock but haven't been able to squeeze in a screening of any of his films recently. I may pull something out at the last moment like with the Aldrich-a-Thon, but I suspect not. To my regret.

And Jimmy the Hyena, I'm trying to appreciate your comment but am not exactly sure what it means. Would you care you elaborate?
fah-ta-lai-jone is also a name of a thai herb. if u seperate the word, fah in thai mean sky or sometime heaven, ta-lai means to crash or destroy, and jone means thief. it's a beautiful title with retro sense.
The Unseeable is playing in Chiang Mai, but not at a theater near me. I am hoping to find a way to see it, hoping that a tuk-tuk driver can read the address since a detailed map of Chiang Mai does not exist. Tears of the Black Tiger was one of the first Region 2 DVDs I bought since the time had long past since the Weinstein boys were going to release it.

In reference to Magnolia films, the Bangkok Post notes that they will have US rights to the newest Tony Jaa film.
Thanks, gui, for the further clarification regarding this film's Thai name.

Peter, I wish I could pop over to Chiang Mai and help get you acquainted with the place, which after my stay I feel like I know as well as any town I've lived in. Though I hear lots of things have changed in the past six years, so I might find myself almost as lost as you.
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