Thai Cowboys With Rockets

Photo: Courtesy of Film Forum

It’s fun to watch non-American directors translate American genre movies into their own language, American directors translate them back, and non-Americans remix those re-translations, adding dollops of indigenous culture … and then wind up with whacked-out genetic mutations like Tears of the Black Tiger, which its distributor is marketing, quite rightly, as “a candy-colored cowboy cult confection from Thailand.” The only thing missing from that description is an exclamation point. Is it possible to evoke this movie without invoking two dozen others? The director, Wisit Sasanatieng, cites fifties Thai Westerns and a strain of sixties Thai action cinema (Raberd poa, Khaow pao kratom, or “Bomb the mountain, burn the huts”)—and I’ll have to take his word on that. I get a hash of forties cheapie Lash La Rue oaters; florid, wide-screen, Technicolor Douglas Sirk melodramas; lyrical Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns; homoerotic John Woo gangster shoot-’em-ups; and even George A. Romero splatterfests. I used to make jokes about a hack critic who dubbed Diva “a stylish exercise … in style,” but that about sums this one up. It’s synthetic down to its digitized (but shapely) digits.

Tears of the Black Tiger is set in the age of … who knows? Men in wide-brimmed hats gallop around on horseback firing six-shooters, but sundry machine guns and rocket launchers suggest the director’s time frame is a tad loose. Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), a beautiful young woman in a bright-magenta dress, awaits her true love in a blue-and-red sala (a Thai pergola) in a blue-lit drizzle in the middle of a golden field. While her heart aches, said true love, Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), is blowing the brains out of a rat who double-crossed his outlaw boss. Most people who write “blowing the brains out” are indulging in hyperbole. That wouldn’t be me. (Later, as a bullet whizzes toward a man’s head, there’s even a split-second insert of a brain to contextualize the subsequent chunk-shower.) It turns out that Dum, a peasant who, as a lad, kept company with the higher-born Rumpoey, is now the fabled desperado Black Tiger—fastest gun in the rice paddy and a Charles Bronson–level harmonica player.

For the first half-hour and change, Tears of the Black Tiger plays like out-and-out camp, especially when Dum’s cohort Mahasuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon) shares the screen—he of the pouffy hair and pencil mustache and nefarious C-movie laugh (“HO-ho-ho!”). But Sasanatieng throws so much at you that conviction—and passion—bleeds through: No one could keep up this sort of barrage without truly believing in the magic of movies. As drama, the film is both rudimentary and convoluted: Girl loves outlaw but is pledged to police captain; softy outlaw saves captain from execution by gang; captain gets jealous (“He owns your heart, but I own your body!”); hundreds die. But the movie is really about arcs of blood; the saturation of color as a girl disappears into a river (the tributaries turn deep red); the smoke that curls out of a gun barrel; the old-fashioned movie-movie whine of bullets as they ricochet; and cowboys glimpsed through each other’s bowed legs against swirls of color. Blue-green, chartreuse, all manner of pinks—I flashed back to picking paint shades for my bathroom. And every now and then there’s a disjunctive note, like the rejoinder before a climactic shootout: “Remember your oath in front of the Buddha!”

Tears of the Black Tiger arrives with many critics prejudiced in its favor: It had a triumphant screening at Cannes in 2001, was promptly snapped up by the voracious Harvey Weinstein, and then disappeared into the Miramax abyss. It’s no buried postmodern masterpiece, but it certainly is a jaw-dropper: a delirium-inducing crash course in international trash.

In Miss Potter, Renée Zellweger has rounded gerbil cheeks and squinched-up eyes; she looks less like Beatrix Potter than a Beatrix Potter illustration. Is there a cottontail wagging under those bustles? As she proved in Bridget Jones’s Diary, she’s in clover playing English girls; she snuggles herself inside her accent and blithely pops out her lines. She’s dear enough to make this nineteenth-century biopic bearable, but you have to love the genre to sit through scene after scene of dialogue like: “Really, Beatrix: What young man is ever going to marry a girl with a face full of mud?” “I have my art and my animals; I don’t need more love than that”—and on and on, in scenes that make their biopic points and then skip biopic-ishly along as characters sputter, “Well, I never!”

Beatrix—as her snobbily snobbish mother (a snob) reminds her endlessly—is unmarried and likely to remain so as long as she’s always painting garden creatures with waistcoats and walking sticks instead of sensibly allowing herself to be courted. But her beasties are her friends, she insists, and by way of illustration the director, Chris Noonan (Babe), brings them to cartoon life, often with a sprinkling of piano keys, like fairy dust. It’s less cloying than it sounds, if only because Mother Potter is so unremittingly ghastly (“This behavior shows scant regard for your father’s money!”) and Father Potter so erratic in his support that there’s always the hope of Beatrix pulling a Lizzie Borden. But Potter’s life was evidently short on ax whacks. We never even have the satisfaction of seeing her scowling publishers—two prigs who accept her book only as a means of occupying their ineffectual younger brother (Ewan McGregor)—beholden to a woman who converses with bunny pictures.

McGregor (Ewan, not Farmer) is insipidly sincere (Why are there so few parts in which he looks at home?), but the movie picks up when his lumbering sister (Emily Watson) arrives in a jacket and tie and denounces all marriage as “domestic enslavement.” Will she and Beatrix find a warren of their own? Alas, there is no Sapphic sisterhood: She confesses to Beatrix that it’s just an act and that she longs for wedded bliss as much as everyone else. The movie substitutes conventional hetero terminal illness. I’ve long held that in biopics there’s no such thing as an insignificant cough; here, the sight of someone in the rain without an overcoat plays like a warrant for execution.

Miss Potter hardly deserves ridicule. It’s sweet with lovely Lake District vistas and a heartfelt endorsement of land conservation. It will certainly play well with older audiences and the kind of adolescent girls who draw faces in their O’s. And I’m happy that Zellweger got to traipse around the verdant English hills and dales hugging a sketchbook to her breast—it’s a nice change from wringing the necks of roosters.

The Verdict on Auschwitz doesn’t sound like much of a cliffhanger. (“Guilty.”) But this three-part German television documentary of the Frankfurt trial that lasted from 1963 to 1965 uses unheard audiotapes of camp survivors and SS men to construct a portrait that transcends even these momentous particulars: of a vast, self-sustaining ecosystem of sadism and greed. The directors, Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner, lead us through the early investigations, the roundup of commandants and guards and medical orderlies, the inducement of victims to return to Germany. The recordings play as the camera roams the modern, empty courtroom: You hear the note of disbelief in the trembling voices of survivors, and the absence of emotion in the tones of the accused—men locked in a denial that seems as much pathological as self-serving. This is what every human with the potential to wield unchecked power should know: that we are capable of anything.

The Weinstein-era Miramax was notorious for scooping up festival films like Tears of the Black Tiger, only to sit on them for years. Its “vault” was temporary home to films like Hero, which collected dust from 2002 to 2004 (and became a box-office hit only after six delayed release dates); Mindhunters, a Christian Slater bomb delayed from 2002 to 2005; and, most famously, Prozac Nation, purchased in 2001, which skipped a theatrical debut altogether. After the Weinsteins left Miramax in 2005, some feared Tears of the Black Tiger would never see the light of day, but then Magnolia Pictures swooped in to rescue it, banking on the film’s “retro oddball” appeal.

Tears of the Black Tiger
Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. Magnolia Pictures. Not rated.

Miss Potter
Directed by Chris Noonan. MGM. PG.

The Verdict on Auschwitz
Directed by Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner. First Run Features. Not rated.


Thai Cowboys With Rockets