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A Thai filmmaker's tale of near-epic proportions

Wisit Sasanatieng was thrilled when Miramax nabbed his film, but a showdown followed. It lasted six years.

March 02, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — "Tears of the Black Tiger," a Thai musical cowboy melodrama that opens in Los Angeles today, is a delirious pastiche that whizzes through as many incongruous genres as it does implausible plot twists. The movie's real-life trajectory -- from festival star to battle-scarred survivor -- is almost as dramatic and convoluted.

Arriving in American theaters nearly seven years after it was completed, it's one of the most notable victims of the old, overspending Miramax, which in the Weinstein era was notorious for acquiring armloads of festival titles and sometimes allowing them to molder in the vaults indefinitely.

The first feature by Wisit Sasanatieng, a former cartoonist and commercials director, "Tears of the Black Tiger" was the most visible manifestation of the renaissance in Thai cinema. (And not just thanks to its retina-searing palette of chartreuse, canary and magenta.) Dormant for years, Thailand's film industry received a jump-start in the late 1990s with the emergence of slick homegrown hits such as the gangster tale "Dang Bireley" and the ghost story "Nang Nak" (both directed by Nonzee Nimibutr and written by Sasanatieng). But it was Sasanatieng's singular directorial debut -- a movie that evokes countless others and is also like nothing else on Earth -- that alerted the Bangkok film community to the potential of an international market.

A fetishistic homage to Thai genre movies of the '50s and '60s, the film was a flop at home. "It was considered an art-house film by the locals," said Kong Rithdee, film critic of the Bangkok Post. But "Tears" started to gain traction on the festival circuit. It received its overseas premiere in the fall of 2000 at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it won a top prize. By the time it arrived in Cannes the following spring, the film's sales agent, Fortissimo, had successfully orchestrated a feeding frenzy among assembled buyers.

Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which is now releasing the film, remembers seeing "Tears" at its first packed Cannes screening. "The saturated color scheme and the incredibly arch nature of the characters and plot were counterbalanced by a seeming earnestness that just had no precedent for me," he said.

When the Weinstein-run Miramax scooped up the film, it caused a tremor in the Thai movie industry. "Everybody was excited," Sasanatieng said. "It was the first time a Thai film had been sold to a big U.S. company."

Since "Iron Ladies," the 2001 comedy about a transgender volleyball team that was the first Thai film to open theatrically in the U.S., several more have followed. The Chicago-educated Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an established art-house favorite with structural enigmas such as "Blissfully Yours" and the Cannes prize winner "Tropical Malady." There has also been more mainstream fare, notably the martial-arts action movie "Ong Bak," starring the muay thai expert Tony Jaa.

But "Tears of the Black Tiger" went unseen (which only increased its cult standing among cinephiles).

The first rumblings of trouble came when Miramax decided to re-cut the film within months of the Cannes purchase. Sasanatieng said he and his producers had been warned of the Weinsteins' penchant for meddling. But, he said, "We were too innocent. We believed that they would respect our work. They told us again and again that everybody at Miramax loved the film so much."

Sasanatieng offered Miramax a shorter edit of "Tears" that he had prepared for some regions (his preferred cut, the one Magnolia is releasing, runs 110 minutes). But it was less the length than the content that troubled the executives.

"They didn't allow me to re-cut it at all," Sasanatieng said. "They did it by themselves and then sent me the tape. And they changed the ending from tragic to happy. They said that in the time after 9/11, nobody would like to see something sad."

Sasanatieng said he responded by sending Miramax another cut that was shorter than theirs, preserving his ending, but that too was rejected. He then attempted to get out of the deal but found he had no recourse.

It was the "horrible version," as he put it, that played at Sundance in 2002. But Miramax, having butchered the film, apparently lost interest and never released it.

This reckless manhandling was not atypical for a company with such profligate buying habits.

"Miramax had an insatiable appetite for anything that appealed to them," Magnolia's Bowles said. "Part of the strategy was probably to keep films with potential upsides away from the competition. There's also the factor of competitive juices coming into play. Being able to quickly snag a film that had a lot of heat on it was, I'm sure, a big factor in its acquisition. They ended up acquiring more films than could be sensibly released."

"Tears" is not the first film that Bowles and Magnolia's head of acquisitions, Tom Quinn, have liberated from the Miramax crypt. In 2005, they bought and released another buried Asian cult item, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's techno-horror film "Pulse" (which Miramax had snapped up, also at Cannes in 2001, for the remake rights).

Sasanatieng, who has completed two more films since and is in preproduction on his fourth, is relieved to leave the whole episode behind. "It's strange to have people only now seeing and talking about my first film, but it also makes me happy," he said. "It's like a rebirth."

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