Many Americans take a far too ethnocentric view of history, accepting a
few bastions of Western civilization as worthy cultural items. For that
reason alone, Thai director Chatri Chalerm Yukol's lavish production, The Legend of Suriyothai, is worth watching. If your only experience with Thai culture comes from restaurants and The King and I, the film can prove to be an eye-opener even though it's not always successful cinematically. Epic in scope, the film covers the history of 16th century Thailand and demonstrates Shakespearean themes of unrequited and true love, lust for power, and betrayal existing across diverse cultures. Erase any visions of early Thai history consisting of peaceful, contented Buddhists meditating upon lotus blossoms—theirs is a very relatable history that proves as treacherous and bloody as any of the more familiar western civilizations.
Funded by the current queen of Thailand to educate Thais about their history, The Legend of Suriyothai broke local box office records before attracting the attention of Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now! ), who executive produced and recut the three-hour film down to two and a half hours for Western consumption. After screening at Sundance in 2003, this uneven version is now making its way to selected arthouses in the U.S., but hopefully will be available on a fully loaded DVD with special features to serve its educational goal. Covering fifty years of political intrigue within the kingdom of Ayuthaya from King Ramathibodhi II's reign to the 1548 battle with Burma, the advertised "story of a warrior princess" distorts what you'll actually see. In time, Queen Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdl) strides into full battle atop one of the production's 160 elephants, but most of the film deals with the scandals, backstabbing conspiracies, and corruption that threaten the survival of Siam.
To cover the complicated backstory, the film relies heavily on offscreen narration during the first hour that tosses names, places, and zodiacal references (year of the Horse, Rat, Dragon, etc.) that certainly have import and meaning to Thai audiences but become mind numbing for neophytes to the culture. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some of the actors play multiple roles (e.g. Pimolrat Pisolyabutras plays the teenage Suriyothai and later portrays her daughter). Fortunately, the visual richness of the scenes makes the foggy significance and bewildering identities tolerable—this may be resolved more successfully in the longer original version.
Shakespearean scholars and European history majors will find parallels with the basic story. Although the early 16th century was a time of relative peace since Siam's traditional northern rival Burma wasn't actively engaging them in war, Siam's internal peace was continually quietly under attack. The most powerful of its kingdoms, Ayuthaya relied upon the cooperation of its four royal dynasties to maintain the peace: Suphannabumi, U-Thong, Phra Ruang, and Sri Thammasokaraj. Initially we meet teenagers Suriyothai (played by Pimolrat Pisolyabutras) and her "cousin" Lord Piren, both from the Phra Ruang dynasty and whose fates are closely intertwined. These are two of the heroic figures in the developing melodrama, and Lord Piren hands her a small yellow lotus blossom (shades of Braveheart's thistle) to pledge his undying loyalty, offering to come to her assistance whenever needed. Their love for each other is palpable, but familial/political relationships prevent such a match, leaving only the pains and tensions of unrequited love. Theirs is not to be the story of corruption—that is left to others within the court.
Instead, Suriyothai marries Prince Tien, the son of King Atitaya, to strengthen the ties between the two powerful families. Tien (Sanrunyoo Wongkrchang) also proves heroic. After the "Lady Macbeth" of the drama, Lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) poisons the king to gain control of the crown, Tien seeks sanctuary as a Buddhist monk and is convinced to bring sanity and unity to Ayuthaya through the efforts of Suriyothai and Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich). This doesn't happen without much bloodshed, of course. Heads roll (literally) with homages to notable samurai beheading sequences occurring more than once during large-scale battles. Employing 3,500 extras (including many Thai army and navy conscripts) and 160 elephants, the battle scenes are spectacularly filmed on a grand scale reminiscent of Cecil B. Demille. The closest we've seen to this was the opening battle scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, but those were generated from special effects and didn't feature sword fights from the backs of pachyderms.
The film takes a long time to develop, and the backstory is awkwardly inserted too overtly to engage anyone not committed to learn early Thai history. But if you can overlook the film's obvious flaws, there's much to admire, especially during the natural flow of the final hour. The sincerity of the filmmakers to preserve history must be noted. Five years of research pay off with great authenticity. Not only are the weapons historically accurate, but the palaces and battle scenes are shot at the actual locations while many other scenes are shot around the ruins of ancient Ayutthaya. Decidedly not for everyone, The Legend of Suriyothai played better for Thais, history buffs, and PBS/NPR audiences. While the beautiful gold laden palace sets and cinematography gain from a large screen presence, a DVD release with extensive extras will better serve most Western audiences for the content.