I Am Siam

The Legend of Suriyothai gives 16th-century Thailand an epic identity

If, in keeping with current fads, you seek movies featuring females kicking a bunch of ass, your appetite will be tended (and cultivated) at the multiplex all summer long. Wander into your local art-house, however, and you may find a fine, if somewhat challenging, import called The Legend of Suriyothai--billed a bit misleadingly as the story of a "woman warrior" but better defined as an epic of grand proportions on par with DeMille or Lean, involving many diverse characters. Indeed, the titular Thai queen's story frames the film, and she does briefly enter battle astride a richly ornamented elephant, but this complex and intricate tale goes beyond her fairly simple heroics into royal court intrigues, backstabbing, corruption, conspiracy, scandal and insurrection--all the things that make a country great.

Executive-produced and recut by cinematic shepherd Francis Ford Coppola, whose own legendary name lingers long at the film's beginning, this lavish and captivating production by veteran Thai director Chatri Chalerm Yukol (Salween) transports us to another world where even the film stock seems imbued with a timeless, classic quality. (There's significantly less of that stock, too, as the import has been trimmed by about 40 minutes for American consumption.) It's easy to understand Coppola's attraction to the exotic Eastern project, but this conflict takes place long before Brando went to Vietnam, and three centuries before the story of The King and I. Starting in 1528 and spanning the 16th century, the story unfolds to reveal the southern Siamese kingdom of Ayothaya, assaulted from within by ever-shifting alliances and without by the rough-and-ready oppressors of Burma (who are portrayed as malevolent goons led by a meanie with nice taste in gold thrones).

When we first meet young Suriyothai (Pimolrat Pisolyabutras, later playing her own daughter), life is magical and beautiful, as puffs of artificial fog waft through the jungle. In ancient Siam, it seems, everybody's constantly supplicating themselves to royalty, and there's royalty all over the place, thus a lot of supplicating minions amid all that fog. But Suriyothai is disinterested, even petulant. Feeling the pangs of teenhood, she sneaks away to enjoy a brief, secret encounter with her cousin, the young noble Lord Piren (Soranut Chatwiboon), who pledges to her his body and brain, and hands her a yellow flower to seal the deal. Not bad. Nonetheless, she explains, "All I want is an elephant" (presumably the ancient Siamese version of a pony), and pretty soon she's betrothed to young Prince Tien, who makes good on the pachyderm.

Suphakit Tangthatswasd plays King Tabinshwehti, a Burmese king, in The Legend of Suriyothai.
Suphakit Tangthatswasd plays King Tabinshwehti, a Burmese king, in The Legend of Suriyothai.

Even if you're a regular frequenter of Thai restaurants (this critic couldn't do without), the magnificence of every glittering detail here should delight your Western (or Westernized) eyes. From each perfectly coiffed topknot to curled-toe slipper, luminous temple to jeweled blade, Suriyothai's a feast for the eyes. This is actually very helpful, as the film features narration from a man who sounds roughly like Bullwinkle the Moose, and it flings seemingly unpronounceable names and places at you pretty much nonstop. The sumptuous frames make the narrator sound somewhat less silly while making all the reading and remembering worth the trouble. It's a bit much as we get specific years plus their Eastern zodiacal reference (Rat, Ox, Dragon, etc.), the stage of the moon at any given time, the locations--such as the hang-suite of adult Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich) in Pitsonulak--and so on, but in terms of drama and history, studious attention pays off.

Once Queen Suriyothai and Tien--now King Mahachakrepat--reach adulthood (played rather stoically by M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi and Sarunyoo Wongkrchang), the kingdom of Ayothaya's going to hell in a tuk-tuk. With an often strangely Western score by Richard Harvey that sounds like a cross between Vaughn Williams and Old Yeller, years pass and tension builds. Kingdoms battle each other to the tune of thousands of warriors, old monarchs die, villainies are committed and disreputable hippies invade Ayothaya.

Although this sounds suspiciously like a made-up rap group, there's a line of people called the U-Thong who'll stop at nothing to seize control. The sensual royal consort Lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) seems faithful to her lord, but in fact she's a Siamese Lady Macbeth and far and away this movie's most interesting character. Heads literally roll as the result of her meddling (there's some really fun and grody CG work), her king meets a ghastly fate and soon her no-account minstrel boyfriend Lord Warawongsa (Johnny Anfone, the Thai Colin Farrell?)--one of the dreaded U-Thong clan--worms his way into office. This is just one of several interwoven subplots.

This movie even features an ignorant little boy with no knowledge of government or general common sense who accidentally becomes leader of his nation. Can you imagine a catastrophic goof like that? Who says foreign cultures aren't relatable?

 
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