Pulpmovies Cult Film Reviews
Although I am currently living in the Netherlands, Dutch is very much a second language to me. I can cope with the essentials of life, such as ordering beer and pizza, but Im still far from fluent.
Normally this isnt an issue since most films are shown here in their original language with Dutch subtitles. Ive even gotten lucky with foreign language films in the past, having seen both Princess Mononoke and Tetsuo II (still in their original language) with English subtitles. So when I saw that the Filmmuseum was showing Tears of a Black Tiger as part of their Films in the Open Air season, I contacted them to find out if I could get lucky for a third time.
The answer was no, but since it was a nice night and Id heard some good things about this film, I thought that now would be a good time to find out whether the Dutch lessons had paid off. I even managed to drag a (English speaking) friend along by not mentioning the language/subtitle issue until he was clutching a beer.
There is a point to all this rambling, which is that, even with a slightly limited understanding of what was going on, we both had a great time watching this film.
There is another point to all this rambling, which is that, while understanding the gist of what was going on I may well have missed some of the finer points of the film (assuming there were any).
And now… on with the review.
Tears of a Black Tiger takes two genres that normally wouldnt sit comfortably in the same film and seamlessly merges them into a story that is both dramatic and riotously funny.
Having been delayed by a shootout (and this is a spectacular opening scene, complete with an action replay) Dum, the titular Black Tiger, arrives late for a planned elopement with his childhood sweetheart, Ramphui.
Believing that shes been stood up, Ramphui has returned home, upset and disheartened. So much so that she finally gives in to pressure from her father - the local governor - to marry the local commandant, Kumjorn. Of course, with Kumjorn leading the hunt for the outlaw Fai and his gang of Tigers, its inevitable that the paths of Kumjorn and Dum will eventually cross.
Kumjorn gets the drop on Fais gang while Dum and Fais right hand man, Meeshuan are becoming blood brothers - at least I assume that this is what they were doing. Watching a pair of Asian cowboys celebrating in a Buddhist shrine is bizarre, to say the least. But there was blood and much drinking involved, so we can run with this one.
Things are going well for Kumjorn until Dum and Meeshuan return and turn the tables, killing most of Kumjorns men in the ensuing rout and capturing Kumjorn.
After a fair bit of mutual back slapping and much maniacal laughter - which is something else that goes completely over the top in this film, neither Fai nor Meeshuan seem able to carry out or witness any criminal act without laughing throughout - Dum is ordered to execute Kumjorn. Inevitably, he learns that Kumjorn is to marry Ramphui.
Devastated, but believing that this is what she wants, Dum allows Kumjorn to escape…
Tears of a Black Tiger is essentially a love story - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc. - sympathetically placed into a Western setting. Sympathetically in that it incorporates themes (honour and vengeance against an essentially lawless background - the story of how Dum becomes a Black Tiger, told in flashback, is consistent enough to retain the audiences sympathy even though he is one of the most feared outlaws in the region) and scenes (the shoot-out, the stand-off) that are immediately recognisable to anyone who familiar with the genre.
But then it goes a step further, placing all this against an unmistakably Thai background. Its an odd effect, often causing you to look twice and recognize just how much you take for granted when watching westerns. This is exacerbated by the seemingly random use of weaponry throughout the film - mixing rocket launchers, automatic pistols and revolvers, often in the same scene - creating an air of timelessness; or, at least, defying you to get too specific about the period in which the film is set.
Then there is the colour… Tears of a Black Tiger is shot in gloriously bright colours - deliberately reminiscent of early colour film stock - giving it a surrealistic, dreamlike quality. And the sets play up to this, with blatantly artificial backgrounds perfectly matching the over the top acting and spectacularly gory action scenes.
Tears of a Black Tiger manages to simultaneously pay homage to and parody both western and romantic films. Its also one of the funniest and freshest Ive seen in a long time. So much so that Ive ordered the DVD - what more can I add?
After blowing his commanding officers brains out in the middle of the parade ground, Captain Robbins (Ray Liotta) is promptly locked up… escapes, gets caught, goes to a higher security gaol… and starts repeating the process…
When we catch up with him, hes on his way to the Leviticus Penitentiary - a really is escape proof this time prison. On arrival, The Warden (Michael Lerner) wastes no time in explaining to Robbins that he will have no contact with anyone outside Leviticus, has no hope of escaping and is effectively dead as far as the outside world is concerned. Parole and miscarriages of justice have evidently been eliminated by 2022.
Inevitably, Robbins refuses to be bowed by The Wardens spiel (I dont recall him actually getting a name, just The Warden - maybe in the future wardens of privately run prisons will be so famous theyll no longer need names. Move over Madonna, prison management is the new rock and roll) which - equally inevitably - prods The Warden to become determined to demonstrate his superiority over the prisoner. The result of all this is that Robbins manages to make The Warden look like an idiot in front of an audience of fellow inmates… before handing himself over for his beating.
Understandably miffed at being humiliated in front of the prison population, The Warden sends Robins to Absolom - a highly secret and not very legal tropical island dumping ground for the most difficult of his inmates.
On arrival, Robbins quickly runs into the nasty murderers who helpfully identify themselves as the bad guys through tattoos, piercings, poor dental hygiene and general smelliness. This bunch drags Robbins back to their camp - a pretty unpleasant affair… complete with a couple of burnt out cars. I dont think we are expected to wonder too much about how these cars got onto Absolom, just assume they were washed up on the beach or something.
Here, he learns that this bunch calls themselves The Outsiders and meets their leader, Marek (Stuart Wilson) the owner of the islands sole gun. Presumably the gun was washed up on the beach as well and a bit of water damage would explain why it takes about five seconds to warm up.
Of course, it doesnt take long for Robbins to take the gun from Marek and escape. But this scene is so illogical that it deserves more than a single sentence.
While surrounded by the entire Outsider tribe, Robbins manages to pull the gun from Marek and turn it on the assembled villains. Being a reasonable bunch, the Outsiders stand and wait while the gun warms up. Why? Because if one of them decided to throw one of the knives, spears or sundry weapons all of them are armed with while Robbins is effectively unarmed then the whole film would have to be cut short.
Once the gun has warmed up, Robbins kindly stops pointing it at them and turns and runs, eventually falling into the hands of the other tribe on the island - The Insiders.
It is quickly evident that these are the nice murderers - not a tattoo or piercing in sight and they all clearly have access to a decent dentist and hot showers. Robbins is in a pretty bad way when the Insiders pick him up, but when he comes round and starts to explore his surroundings their good-guy status is confirmed.
Rather than descending to the barbarism of the Outsiders, this community of 98 souls has built themselves a functioning, if primitive, village. Theyve progressed from scavenging to farming and have even managed to build themselves a windmill.
Here, he meets the leader of the Insiders, The Father (Lance Hendrikson) who invites Robbins to stay. Robbins, of course, now has a problem with taking orders and decides that he will move on just as soon as he is healed. Having escaped from every other prison hes been sent to, Robbins is determined to escape from Absolom as well, regardless of how impossible hes constantly told that this is.
As is the case in movies like this, Robbins injuries are enough to keep him in the Insiders village for as long as the plot needs him to stay, but not enough to prevent him from making himself useful when the next action scene comes along. And, of course, being wounded gives Robbins the chance to wander around the Insiders camp and meet the various characters - the kid, the comedy hypochondriac, the mercenary beachcomber and the mad moonshiner, among others. He also gets to learn a little of the Insiders attitude to Absolom in general and the village in particular.
Most of the characters dont want to escape from the island - they see it as the place where they can put their crimes behind them. The village, therefore, is the place in which they can rediscover a sense of community and, through this find meaning in their lives. This, of course, is completely at odds with Robbins, whose own personal demons wont allow him to be at peace with himself until he has made public the events that led him to paint a parade ground with his commanders brains.
And yes… Escape from Absolom does take a bit of a break to examine the nature of guilt and redemption and stops to discuss whether being able to build a community on the island amounts to freedom (a view that Robbins is unable to accept).
Its commendable that the makers of this film took a stab at going beyond the normal no-brainer explosion linking plots that often characterizes action movies. Unfortunately, I was left wondering why the Insiders were on the island in the first place. Granted, they were all involved in some sort of murderous activity - but (in two out of the three cases described) the critical phrase is involved in as opposed to committed. These guys are the accessories, the fences, the people who get involved in something out of their depth and who you would expect to see sitting quietly in prison until their early release. They are not the irredeemable sociopaths that make up the Outsiders. Which brings me to the second problem I had with this attempt at philosophising.
I have to admit that my knowledge of psychology is limited to BBC2s The Prison, but I did find the way in which the residents of Absolom are divided into the essentially good Insiders and irredeemably barbaric Outsiders overly simplistic. A single community with a wider variety of attitudes would have made for a more realistic environment but wouldnt have done much for the battle sequences.
So, with some relief, we get back to the action.
It turns out that the Insiders do have a plan to escape from the island. Not all of them, and not for their own benefit. But they believe that the world needs to know what is going on here (and Robbins has a message that needs to be heard… which is convenient). I have to admit to being less than convinced here - not so much by the characters motivations but, if the general public are willing to accept a no release, no contact with anyone penitentiary such as Leviticus, I cant see them getting very upset to discover that some of the inmates have been dumped onto a deserted island and left to their own devices. The same reservation applies to Robbins - no one was interested in why he blew his commanding officers brains out at the time and we are given no indication that there has been any change to prevailing attitudes. So, surely escaping again will merely lead to his finding an even more secure prison (maybe there is a potential sequel here - Escape from Absolom II: Guarded by Clones).
From here to the closing credits, the plot ticks along nicely with a couple of well timed twists to keep the audience on their toes. The action sequences - including a full-scale assault on the Insiders village - are always impressive and the island setting is well used. Most of the set construction budget appears to have been spent on the Insiders village and its been money well spent - the village is an interesting and reasonably realistic representation of 13 years work starting from scratch.
The philosophical digression, while commendable, did more to highlight the shortcomings of the films genre than to provoke any consideration of the message. This is a shame as it left me more inclined to look for holes in the rest of the plot than would have otherwise concerned me.
Its not a bad film. But neither is it a great film and in trying to achieve two ambitions - big bangs and thoughtful - it falls just short of both. You could do a lot worse than renting this film, but you could also do a lot better.