For almost seven years, Wisit Sasanatieng's Thai Western-comedy-romance Tears Of The Black Tiger has been the stuff of cinephile legend, passed around in bootleg form in a generalized protest against the shameless film-hoarding of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. Always on the lookout for the next foreign-language crossover hit, Weinstein went on an oddball foreign-film-buying binge in the early '00s, then stuck most of those acquisitions on a shelf. Apparently he realized that a film like Tears Of The Black Tiger—with its wildly stylized design and hyperbolic story about a sharpshooting cowboy, his epic love for an heiress, and a gory three-way gang war—could only reach a cult audience.
Some reviewers have semi-sided with Weinstein, suggesting that since Tears Of The Black Tiger spoofs obscure Thai B-movies, American audiences might have trouble grasping that its blatant artificiality is intentional. But that's hogwash. Tears Of The Black Tiger is in the tradition of Bollywood, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Juzo Itami, and Douglas Sirk, and all those are arthouse staples, either directly or through the directors they influenced. Rather than stitching a lot of wrinkles into his boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-becomes-masked-bandit plot, Sasanatieng revels in the chance it gives him to play with the medium, whether by stopping the action so he can insert a slow-motion replay of a ricocheting bullet (and the head it blows to gooey bits) or by staging outdoor scenes in front of abstractly painted backdrops.
But the Tears Of The Black Tiger skeptics are also right, in that the movie is never going to have broad appeal. Though Sasanatieng makes a few swings at real poignancy—which don't really connect—mostly this is the kind of relentlessly postmodern "fun" best served in small portions, and preferably on dessert plates. The film's lofty reputation has as much to do with its scarcity as its "and now here's a midget with a rocket launcher" randomness. Thematically, the movie only hits one point: People are untrustworthy, so a true hero stands alone. Or maybe it hits two points: With Sasanatieng's indulgence of lyrical scenes where young lovers row in a lotus-strewn lake, or his use of flashbacks that look like old movies with frames missing, he seems to be saying that even our memories are a lot better when they look like cinema.