Heaven strikes the Miramax thief: A talk with the director behind Tears of the Black Tiger

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What can I say about the movies of Wisit Sasanatieng that could do justice to the images in the movies themselves? Really, to persuade you to see Tears of the Black Tiger this weekend, all I should do is show you a bunch of outrageously gorgeous stills from the film. So, that's what I will do. I'll intersperse questions by me and answers from him, in case you care a jot about what one or both of us has to say.

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Guardian: To what degree does Tears of the Black Tiger [aka Fah Talai Jone] reflect your passion about movies, from childhood onward?
Wisit Sasanatieng: This movie represents my sincere intention to portray classical Thai movies that I grew up watching. Old movies are my personal passion and I tried to combine all of the qualities of Thai classic movies into this project. Basically, this is my feeling toward cinema.

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G: Tears combines a number of genres that usually aren't placed together in the same film, such as soap opera or melodrama and spaghetti westerns. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in Thai soap opera, and are you a fan of spaghetti westerns?
WS: Yes, I have been a fan of spaghetti western and Thai soap opera since I was little. I am drawn to its dramatic feeling to it – it’s honest, simple, not complicated. Even though it is not a true portrayal of real life drama, that is the quality of cinema. When you watch this kind of movie, you will become free from reality. Although soap opera is now out of style, I am one of a few who still see the beauty of it.

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G: A sala, or what someone in the US might consider a gazebo, figures heavily in Tears. Can you tell me a bit about this choice of setting, or its significance in the film?
WS: In the old Thai films, there’s often a place associated to a character waiting for the return of the loved ones. Sometime the place itself is being used as a storyteller in the movie. I chose a pavilion in the opening scene because it is the starting place of all the stories in the movie and it portrays the past and the promise of love between two leading characters.

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G: Likewise, the mansion, and in particular its lobby, is striking. Were you drawing upon settings in earlier films, or specific palatial residences in Thailand?
WS: The outside mansion is a real 100-year-old mansion belonging to a government employee. The inside, though, was set in a studio, because the real mansion didn’t have stairs in the middle and the color didn’t flow.

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G: I've read that poster art for vintage Thai films influenced the look of Tears, but I'm wondering where else -- painters; other artists, movies from other countries and eras -- you might draw inspiration in terms of your very unique use of color, because Citizen Dog is also an extraordinarily colorful film.
WS: Movie posters for old movie are similar in all cultures. I was influenced by printings in the past such as novel covers, postcards, even show [lobby] cards. The old movies had unique characteristic color themes -- it is all the same in every culture. Green turquoise was used a lot, and Thai movies used even more colors.

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G: How did you feel about the Miramax situation and Tears languishing without a wider international release? Did you ever talk with any other directors who had a similar experience?
WS: Of course, I was furious at first because not only did they not show the movie as agreed, they edited the movie so that it does not represent what I had in mind. It was bad, and I have heard that this has been done to many movies. I know how all of the [other] directors feel even though we haven’t talked to each other.

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G: Both you and [director] Pen-ek Ratanruang do commercial work between film projects. Aside from the financial aspect, does it help at all in terms of playing around with visual ideas? What kind of ads have you worked on recently?
WS: Yes, advertising makes me pay attention to visual style. I sometimes use advertising to test the style of my movie before I direct it, because advertising movies have larger budgets than actual movies. The latest advertising movie was made with Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), to be used overseas. It's called Thailand Grand Invitation.

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G: You cast a writer who contributes to this newspaper, Chuck Stephens, in your movie Citizen Dog. Can you tell me a bit about knowing and working with Chuck, and his performance?
WS: I’ve known Chuck since he was in the US. He was my translator for the subtitles in Citizen Dog. I chose him for the movie because of his hippie or activist-like character. His acting was great for a first movie even though he didn’t really understand Thai.

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G: I'm wondering about the band that plays in the park at the end of Citizen Dog. Who are they, and where did they get those amazing shirts?
WS: The blind band is an actual band who has performed on the side of the street so we contacted them to play for us. We provided the clothing.

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