Monday, July 18, 2005

Legend of Suriyothai (2001)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood in recent years taught us that the films are the last place where the people should learn about history. Queen Sirikit of Thailand had other ideas. Convinced that Thailand's history textbooks aren't detailed enough, she taught her cousin and renowned Thai filmmaker Chatrichalerm Yukol into making a film that would deal with one important chapter of that country's history. The result was LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI, 2001 historical spectacle which later turned into one of the biggest box-office triumphs of Thai cinema. This brought attention of Francis Ford Coppola who helped the film with international distribution.

The plot of film is set in early 16th Century Siam. The country which would ultimately become modern-day Thailand is composed of many principalities gathered around mighty city of Ayutthaya and the national unity is maintained through the complex set of dynastic alliances. The story begins in 1528 when Princess Suriyothai (played by M.L. Pyampas Bhirombhakdi) has to sacrifice her love for childhood friend and distant relative Prince Piren (played by Chatachai Plengpanich) in order to marry Prince Thien (played by Sarunyu Wongkrachang) from different dynasty. The marriage, although political in nature, is happy one but the rest of Siam won't be so fortunate in next two decades. The country is going to be hit by small pox epidemic, invasions from neighbouring Burma, dynastic coups and endless intrigues, especially when king's consort Srisudachan (played by Mari Charoenpura) decides to put herself and her lover to the throne.

Although its budget is small compared with contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI looks very much like the "larger than life" film epics of 1950s and 1960s. Lack of budget for CGI and big stars was compensated with the support of Thai government - thousands of soldiers and sailors, as well as hundreds of elephants serve in spectacular battle scenes. Filmmakers spent years researching the period and almost any detail in the film - costumes, sets and even locations - is authentic. The movie is also very realistic in showing some unpleasant, but banal aspects of history that include beheadings, ritualistic killing of children and some unorthodox sexual practices. The result of all those efforts is a film that looks more impressive than its Hollywood counterparts despite some of very obvious shortcomings.

The main problem of the film is in some 40 minutes of original footage being edited out of new version for international markets. The plot at times looks accelerated and characters appear and disappear without serving any apparent dramatic purpose. Producers to some degree compensate that with extensive use of titles and narration that would help with viewers unfamiliar with Thai history to connect the dots. But this won't solve the film's main problem. In order to emphasise patriotic credentials of the heroine, filmmakers keep her character remains one-dimensional until the very end. To make things even worse, actress playing Suriyothai looks inexperienced and her acting is wooden. Other actors are much better, especially Mari Charoenpura who gives very human face to her villainous character.

While some viewers may be disappointed with the entertainment provided by LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI, this film nevertheless gives a fascinating glimpse into one of the lesser known chapters of world's history. And fulfilling this educational purpose is reason enough for this film to receive recommendation.

RATING: 6/10 (++)


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