Surely you've heard the stories. Miramax is evil, they recut, they bully, and, most ominously, they have a vault full of movies that have been put on ice for reasons long since forgotten. But the vault's most famous victim, "Tears of the Black Tiger," is now finally getting its release from another distributor, Magnolia, who snuck into Miramax territory and liberated this Thai treasure.
When "Tears" first hit the festival circuit back in 2000, it won awards and blew minds. In the post "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" days, everyone was in the market for Asian action pictures, so "Tears" got caught in the Miramax acquisitions net. They recut it, gave it a new ending, got frustrated with it, and finally banished it to the vault. For years, its name was invoked to curse Miramax. But now that it's out, is it worth all the fuss?
Pushing kitsch to the level of transcendence, "Tears" is the kind of bloody, color-coordinated nightmare that a Thai hairdresser would have after sitting through a spaghetti Western marathon. With digitally pushed colors searing your eyeballs and costumes as carefully appointed as a drag queen's coronation gown, it's supposedly a throwback to Thailand's cowboy movies of the 1950s, but we have to take first-time director Wisit Sasanatieng's intentions on faith, since that's a genre whose prints are now almost entirely lost to age and jungle rot.
The story is foursquare melodrama taken straight, no irony. Meet Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), standing in a field of toxic green lily pads waiting for her childhood sweetheart turned bad guy, Dum (Suwinit Panjamawat), to come and save her. But he's otherwise engaged, along with his pal Mahesuan (Supakorn Kitsuwon, sporting a John Waters moustache made of leather), pumping bullets into the miscreants who owe money to their boss. Swooning with despair, Rumpoey repairs to her minimalist mansion, where she attempts to hang herself but is saved at the last minute and now faces an arranged marriage with lame-o police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), who has sworn to marry her and bring in Dum, dead or alive.
"Tears" is totally sincere, but it's a movie made of surfaces, and they're as exhausting as they are beautiful. Fortunately, Mr. Sasanatieng has some new trick around every corner to distract you from the fact that you're watching a one-dimensional movie.
So why has "Tears" exerted such fascination over the years? Because, like "Blue Velvet" or Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho," this is a movie in which the story on-screen becomes invisible, forcing you to look through it and into the heart of the director, whose relentless drive and extraordinary will are what animates these beautiful corpses. Like an illuminated medieval manuscript, the beauty of "Tears" justifies its existence, but it's the evidence of its maker, the traces of his fingerprints, the stains of his sweat, that give it meaning. Pretty is as pretty does, but when it's been done with this much craft you have no choice but to step back and admire it.