Judge Joel Pearce took a ponderous journey into the history of royal Thailand, and all we got was this lousy T-shirt.
The remarkable story of a princess who saved an empire.
The Legend of Suriyothai may be the ultimate vanity project. It was written and directed by Chatri Chalerm Yukol, a prince of Thailand, and was funded by the royal family. Francis Ford Coppola helped out with the production, managing to bring the truly epic four-hour production down to a more manageable 142 minutes. Unfortunately, the film doesn't make much sense when cut to this length, so the problem has not really been solved. This is the Reader's Digest condensed version of the story, and it feels like we only get the most exciting bits.
For all of its problems (and there are many) this is nevertheless a beautiful production that does a wonderful job of capturing the legendary stories of a distant country—if you can stay awake.
Facts of the Case
A spoiled and naïve young princess is forced to grow up quickly when she is trapped in the middle of a labyrinthine political mess in 1600s Thailand. She is given a choice of husbands. One she does not love, but the marriage would prevent political disaster in the Kingdom. The other she does love, but a union with him would endanger both of their lives. She chooses to protect the political situation, but everything goes to hell anyway. Despite terrible circumstances, she continues to prove to be an insightful and clever politician, caring deeply for her country and her people.
The plot and network of characters in The Legend of Suriyothai are complex—enough so that the producers have to put in titles as new characters are introduced, explaining how they fit into the family tree of the Thai royal family. Since all of the characters look similar and wear similar clothes, these titles aren't helpful after about the 30 minute mark, because by then the details of how everyone is connected to each other start to get quite fuzzy. After this, the story becomes somewhat simpler, and I was able to follow along relatively well with a second viewing. Even as this happens, though, the narrative seems rushed and disjointed.
I think this happens for several reasons. First, the film simply doesn't focus enough on its title character. If a film is meant to be about the heroic sacrifice of Suriyothai, then the film should follow her journey closely. Because the historical situation at the time is so complicated, she doesn't get enough screen time to fully gain our sympathy. Also, one of the reasons she is seen as such a hero is that she cared for the good of the people, who were suffering greatly under the power of the usurpers. The producers of the film don't seem to care much for these people, though, since the only characters in the film are members of the court. Just as Suriyothai is often ignored, the Burmese threat is also glossed over until the very end. There needed to be a feeling of imminent threat from outside of the realm, but The Legend of Suriyothai gets too caught up in the court melodrama.
When Suriyothai does finally step up to join the fight, it almost seems like an afterthought. She gives a brief, nationalistic speech about sacrifice and dedication to the country, even though there is no indication that she had received any military training. Perhaps this comes from the fact that we simply don't know very much about Suriyothai's life. We know that she died in battle, a small footnote in the history of Thailand that has now been turned into a historical epic. To flesh out her life would have been an acceptable approach for this film, but it makes little sense to tack on what we do know after two hours of political context.
Some of these problems would have been solved with the longer cut of the film, but I'm sure that cut has even more serious problems. There are already conversations that seem to go on for an eternity, and more of the still, quiet moments between the intrigue of the court would have made the film virtually unwatchable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the film is deeply flawed, it manages to do a number of things well. The greatest of these is the way it captures this time and place in history. Every single set detail, costume, and backdrop is gorgeous and detailed, showing that great care was taken to recreate 16th century Thailand. The vision of elephants riding into battle alone is awe-inspiring, but it is nothing compared to the opulent recreations of the palace interiors and the lush scenery. These backdrops are accompanied by some truly impressive cinematography, which captures several deeply moving and wonderful moments.
The battle scenes, although not as visceral or well filmed as Braveheart and other recent Hollywood war productions, are as large-scale and inventive as any I have ever seen. The night battle between the long-boats is especially remarkable. At times, it is hard to tell which side is which, making these battles far less effective than they should have been.
There are also a number of interesting ideas that are never explored as much as they should be. We see Portuguese mercenaries wandering around among the people of Thailand, and there is an interesting mix of firearms and archery among the warriors. Europeans had a huge impact on Asian wars during this period, and although there is evidence of that influence, it is never really explained here. The film does capture perfectly the tendency for monarchies to crumble apart when a good king dies, leaving the family members to fight over the scraps.
Sony has given The Legend of Suriyothai a more than respectable treatment. The video transfer does a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of the film. The detail level is sharp, and the colors are rich and accurate. Although there is a slight amount of film dirt, it is never distracting. The sound is just as good, with clear dialogue and a wide soundstage.
There are a number of extras as well, the focal point being a commentary track with director Chatri Chalerm Yukol. He is joined by executive producer Kim Aubry, who asks a number of leading questions to help us gain some insight into the plot, characters, and cultural relevance. It tends to be a dull track to listen to, but it has enough historical information that fans of the film will want to check it out.
The production featurette is more interesting and relevant, covering a number of topics, including the general history of the period and the filmmakers' goal to bring this history to a people that no longer learn it in school. Suriyothai is a common folk legend in Thailand, but a lot of work was needed to dig up the details about that period of time. There are also a number of deleted scenes, including the much more confusing original prologue to the film, which foolishly shows the final battle. Some of the other scenes are excellent, and would have probably increased the value of the finished product. Again, with a film this long, those are difficult decisions to make. Still, several of the most impressive battle scenes have been cut from the American cut of the film. There is also a sizable collection of production photos, for those of you who like browsing through little pictures on your televisions.
The stunning cinematography, fabulous recreation of historical Thailand and solid disc may make this a worthwhile rental for fans of historical epics. If only it had been tighter and more focused, I think it could have been recommended for many other people as well. The steady onslaught of new characters and the labyrinthine plot make it too muddled to be worth a purchase, though. I am sure that The Legend of Suriyothai played far better in a country that was already familiar with the story.
I'm going to put this one right on the line between guilty and innocent. Yes, it's flawed; but it really tries to accomplish a lot.
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