SMORGASBORD: Tomyam Western

The most-viewed Thai film among Malaysians in the past few years has got to be Nang Nak. Elderly relatives of mine have seen it. Even people who don’t even normally watch Hollywood or local movies have seen it. The fact that the film is banned is of no consequence – the invisible hand of our VCD pirates have ensured that supply will always oblige when demand beckons.

When I finally managed to catch Nang Nak, I must confess to disappointment. I found it bland, sappy and over­ pretty, more like an advertisement for a Thai rural getaway than a horror movie. But it was a huge hit not only in its native country but in Singapore and Hong Kong, and if it had been allowed a legitimate release here I am sure it would have raked it in as well.

The director, Nonzee Nimbutr, made a follow-up last year. It was an erotic drama called Jan Dara which has also been much-viewed here owing to the flesh being displayed on the illegal VCD covers. Much of the flesh   belonged to the beautiful Hong Kong actress Christy Chung. I much preferred it to Nang Nak, mainly because I liked the perversity of its Gothic plot (old house, secrets, bondage, incest, that kind of thing) and the ravishing way it was filmed in burnished sepia tones. It and many of the cast looked delicious! The major flaw was its total absence of humour. Think of what a truly decadent film artist such as Josef von Sternberg or Luis Bunuel could have made of the hothouse material, and you can only weep. By the way, Jan Dara was banned in Malaysia as well.

The only Thai movie that is being legitimately viewed here at the moment is Tears of the Black Tiger (Fa Talai Jone). It is written and directed by Wisit Sartsanatieng who was the screenwriter of the aforementioned Nang Nak. Last year, it became the first Thai film to be screened in Cannes. It was also commercially released in the UK and its American rights were bought by Miramax.

How is Tears of the Black Tiger? I swooned when I saw it the first time. The opening frames alone – a riverside pagoda in the rain, and a red-lipsticked woman walking towards it – were so gaudy, knowing and stoic that they were like an overload of sensory delight.

As you may have heard by now, the film is a Thai western – complete with harmonicas, Stetsons, sheriffs, gun­ fights and damsels in distress. Unlike the great spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the mood here is almost entirely spoofy. There’s very little catharsis but loads of artifice and attitude. On the other hand, there’s a lot more melodrama than slapstick – so it’s theoretically possible to view the whole movie while not finding it in the least bit funny.

The plot is meant to seem very familiar. An outlaw gunslinger and a dutiful lawman stand off over the principles of justice and the beautiful woman they both love … but her heart is with the bandit. The story is tightly woven with clever uses of flashbacks and parallels, but I daresay that the story isn’t the main attraction here, but its amazing look.

The film was made for a budget of RM3 million and much probably went to the art direction and post-production treatment of the colour scheme, where the primary tones as well as turquoise, pink and lime green are heightened to look like stills of old Technicolor movies. Unlike the similarly retro-camp look of a movie like Blue Velvet, you don’t get the sense that this film is trying to subvert bourgeois complacency by exploiting the iconography of a seemingly more comfortable era. It’s merely celebrating the style of the past by using the technology of the present, but what keeps the enterprise afloat is its visual wit and terrifically deadpan performances.

I think it’s a shame that many people just won’t “get” this movie, and it’s hard to describe what I think they should be “getting” anyway. Back in the days when Susan Sontag was still a fun read, she wrote an essay called Notes on Camp. She sought to define this most slippery of sensibilities: “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. It is a way of approaching the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” But she had to concede, “Camp is esoteric: something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”

A filmmaker like Godard would use the distancing look-at-me technique of a film like this to show up some kind of ideology, but this film is about nothing but itself, which makes a repeat viewing inadvisable (trust me), but the initial viewing an undoubted treat. Tears of the Black Tiger is one huge, knowing wink at the audience, but the simpletons among us may not get even that. I heard complaints from patrons who thought the colour was “bad”, blissfully unaware of the way the tones had to be lovingly treated to look precisely like that. But what to do?

It’s a pop bauble, and also the second-best Thai movie I have ever seen after 6ixtynin9. Never heard of 6ixtynin9? I don’t blame you. This Hitchcockian thriller was dealt the double insult of being not only banned in Malaysia but totally absent at the stalls of our friendly neighbourhood Mafiosi as well.

Tears of the Black Tiger is deliberate Camp, which may ultimately be less fun and even fess honest than works that try to be good but end up in a quagmire of Camp. It’s the difference between, say, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and the actual films of Ed Wood. But the filmmakers would say that naïve Camp is all but impossible in this post­ modernist age, which has reduced us to pastiche and parody. The Western may have started with a bang but it’s going out with a simper.

The minute you try to take this film seriously, it wiff have righteous men in black cocking their rifles while striding along the loudest pink corridors you’ve ever seen, and you will start grinning all over again. The music is great, too. As are the costumes, bringing to mind one of the sayings by the godfather of Camp himself: “You should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” If you know who said that, chances are you will enjoy the film.



First Published: 04.03.2002 on Kakiseni

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