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Siam dunk

Suriyothai hustles through Thai history


Like Sy Sperling, who's not just the founder of Hair Club for Men, but also a client, director Chatrichalerm Yukol doesn't just make films about Thai royalty, he's also a bona fide prince.

Yukol has been a filmmaker for decades, but for his period epic The Legend of Suriyothai, he draws on genuinely royal resources. Thailand's queen helped fund the historical film, and the Thai army and navy turned out to provide thousands of extras. With its opulent locations, massive battles and more than 100 elephants, Suriyothai takes place on a scale that today's filmmakers can't match without extensive computer enhancement.

The film depicts 16th-century Siam as a divided kingdom -- beautiful, violent and frequently riven by civil war. So it's all too appropriate that Suriyothai as a film feels fragmented and at war with itself.

Thailand's answer to Joan of Arc, Queen Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) inspired the nation by donning armor and riding into battle against Burmese invaders. In recounting her fact-based story, the film also establishes a romantic triangle between her husband Thien (Sarunyu Wongkrachang) and true love Lord Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich).

Suriyothai opens in storybook fashion in 1528, when Suriyothai was a bored, pampered princess whose only ambition is to own a baby elephant. Though her heart belongs to good-natured Piren, she marries Thien out of political necessity. The fashion for nearly all of the film's female characters is to keep arms, necks and shoulders bare, which lends a casual sensuality to even the most formal scenes.

After her wedding, Suriyothai gets sidelined for more than an hour as the film hustles us through two decades of turbulent history, marked by ominous comets, border skirmishes, palace intrigue and smallpox epidemics. On-screen titles identify the major players, but the rules of royal succession and the country's separation into greater and lesser kingdoms still bewilders. In the film's most wrenching moment, an usurping rival ritually executes a weeping young heir to the throne.

Eventually a villain emerges in the person of High Consort Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura), a concubine who'd fit right in with the most venomous of Caesar family reunions. Egged on by a scarred, elderly relative, Srisudachan uses a little seduction and a lot of poison to fulfill a scheme to restore the once-proud U-Thong clan to power.

Female empowerment proves the film's recurring theme, with monstrous examples like Srisudachan and noble ones like Suriyothai (who dons her armor in the film's final half-hour). Sinjai Plengoanich provides the film's most vivid physical performance as the consort's burly hatchet-woman, and could be a future foe of James Bond. She stalks her scenes like a WWE bad girl and bears criss-crossed scars on her shoulders, hinting at a backstory that we never get.

We see characters' fortunes rise and fall, but never get inside their heads. Suriyothai herself grows from callow princess to cold political pragmatist to warm, merciful mother of a nation, but her development transpires off camera. The film covers what happens but offers little insight as to why. At one point, Thien becomes a monk. Why? Who knows -- he just does.

Suriyothai's problem may be traced to the fact that the cut being released in America is not the one that became the most popular film in Thai history. Yukol's UCLA classmate Francis Ford Coppola is "presenting" the film in the U.S. and helped edit the film by more than 40 minutes. Now running about two hours and 20 minutes, Suriyothai as it is feels severely shortened, with scenes that provide the basic information then move on without allowing emotions to sink in.

But it may be that the full-length Suriyothai only offers more pomp and pageantry and contains no character beats of stunning insight. The acting we see tends to be bland and superficial, except for the zestful villainesses, and Suriyothai's suitors may as well be interchangeable.

Yukol clearly wants to tell a history lesson and provides a great deal to admire in terms of sheer widescreen spectacle. Lavish, gilt period details decorate nearly every interior scene, and any film that includes so many beheadings can't be dull.

But Yukol proves only a mediocre student of classic epic directors like David Lean. His battle scenes, either with sprawling armies or just a handful of combatants, lack the clarity and intensity to make them truly thrilling. Even the duels on the backs of elephants aren't as exciting as you expect -- they're more like slap-fights with spears.

If you want to see a director fulfill the potential of epic cinema, rent Kurosawa's Ran, a film with scheming women and stunning battles -- as well as emotional power and narrative simplicity. The Legend of Suriyothai offers a rare opportunity to experience an old-fashioned epic in an actual movie theater, even though the film (or Coppola's version) short-changes the characters.

Suriyothai is still waiting for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.

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