Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
The Legend of Suriyothai
Starring M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi. Directed by Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Written by Chatri Chalerm Yukol and Sunait Chutintaranond. Rated R.
The Kings and I

A piece of Thailand’s history comes to bulky life in an elephantine epic.


We sometimes hear of certain movie people described as “Hollywood royalty,” but how often do we get to see a film directed by an actual prince of an actual realm? Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol is first cousin to the reigning king of Thailand. His historical film The Legend of Suriyothai, which was heavily funded by the Thai crown, is obviously intended as a monument to his nation’s history. Although his country’s cinema is in its infancy, the prince is no wealthy dilettante with a camera. He’s an experienced filmmaker who has created a body of work with some range — his last two films, Daughter and Daughter 2 were shot in a pseudo-documentary style and dealt with contemporary disaffected youth. (I’m relying on other people’s reports here; I’ve never seen these films myself.)

This epic set in the 16th century is his bid to step onto the world stage, and he uses his newfound funding to make a jumbo-sized movie replete with huge crowd scenes, sumptuous costumes, panoramic vistas, elaborate religious and political rites, royal messengers issuing proclamations, and battles fought on the backs of elephants, whose tusks frequently emerge covered in blood. Richard Harvey’s expansive score is solidly in the European tradition and gives the pageantry a Hollywood flavor, although the movie could really do without the cheesy song over the end credits.

It’s all quite exotic. It’s also stately and undramatic. The film begins in 1528 with the arranged marriage of Princess Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) to the king’s son, Prince Tien (Sarunyu Wongkrachang), even though she’s in love with Lord Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich). Over the next 20 years, she witnesses the kingdom of Ayuthaya — rendered as “Ayothaya” by the subtitles — endure civil war, court intrigue, and armed conflict with neighboring Burma. It ends with her glorious death in battle, as she sacrifices herself to save a husband she doesn’t love and a kingdom she does.

A great many more historical personages are involved here, and they parade by with so little character development that they take on the quality of chess pieces. They frequently get killed just as you’re learning their names. The actors perform in a declamatory style that precludes any subtlety. (We probably shouldn’t blame the cast. The best American actors would be hard-pressed for originality if they were portraying George Washington or Abe Lincoln in a straightforward way.)

Then again, the movie’s shortcomings may not be entirely its director’s fault. The film’s original cut was slightly over three hours long, but the version being shown in this country is a scant 142 minutes. The filmmakers try to fill in the blanks by using lots of titles and extensive voiceover narration to tell us who everyone is, where they are, and what they’re doing. Yet things still fall through the cracks. The chronology gets messed up — a voice-over tells us that it’s the year of the ox when a title has already informed us that it’s the year of the dragon. You’ll also have to figure out for yourself that Lord Boonsri (Johnny Anfone) and King Worawongsa are one and the same person, the lord changing his title after he’s elevated to the throne.

The film doesn’t put any premium on lean, concise storytelling, and its visual prettiness would be stultifying if Yukol weren’t willing to offset it with gruesome violence. The ritual slaughter of a 6-year-old king who’s crying and calling for his mommy is pretty terrible, though not as graphic as a couple of beheadings or an old king in the last stages of smallpox. It’d be fitting if the movie’s battle sequences were as satisfyingly bloody, but Yukol’s handling of them is crude. You can’t tell where the armies are, and their outfits are similar enough that you can’t tell the sides apart.

Much of the violence is caused by Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura), the Lady Macbeth of the piece and easily its most interesting character. Suriyothai fades from the middle part of the film entirely, as Srisudachan rises from royal concubine to high consort to queen, murdering her political enemies and cheating on her husband (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) with Lord Boonsri, her handsome distant cousin, in order to restore their exiled family to the throne. Amid all the heroic characters, the movie sorely needs the presence of a royal who can pin the blame for one of her own treasonous acts on a handmaiden and then personally execute the woman on the spot.

Although The Legend of Suriyothai doesn’t stand up to other historical films that have dealt with the subject of royalpolitik (such as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran or Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth), the unfamiliarity of the history in the film is enough to give it a distinctive quality. Fans with a particular interest in the region or the trappings of Cecil B. DeMille-style epic filmmaking will find it indispensable, even if casual moviegoers find it no more than watchable.

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