Sometimes medicine can be good for you it turns out – at the two thirds stage this is a monumental work – epic in nature with gigantic sets, incredible historic reproductions of costumes, cities and mannerisms, astonishing large scale battle scenes ripe with death, blood, elephants, charges and gun powder – but most importantly this film is full of old fashioned courage and honor – sacrifice and faith – friendship and love – it’s a great adventure story pure and simple. Almost needless to say, it is a very patriotic film and its subject is treated in a very reverential manner with no faults – almost God like in his determination, wisdom and bravery – and though this can be a little off-putting at times as it is when people talk as if in a speech – it doesn’t really matter because you are so swept up in the story – a real story that really changed the course of history.
The film is important to Thailand partly because the director is Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, not only a very famous director in Thailand for decades but also a member of the royal family. Being a member of the royal family has its perks – like basically having the entire country at your disposal to make this film - most of the one zillion extras are in the armed forces and the Prince was able to use any location he wanted. When the first part was released in 2006 it was highly recommended to theaters that they show it and other films were discouraged from being released at the same time – so this film was playing everywhere.
It is also an important film to Thailand because of the subject matter – a legendary personage who helped form their country in the 1500’s. For most of this century the part of the world that is now Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia were in a constant state of warfare – either attacking externally for domination or fighting within for power. Thailand or what was then called Siam was not a nation state but instead a number of small fiefdoms and city states with the one in Ayutthaya being traditionally the most powerful with the others being somewhat subservient to it. These various power centers were connected by a sense of being from Siam and also from blood as many of the rulers of these kingdoms were related through marriage. Beginning with the film “Suriyothai” in 2001 the director is attempting to illustrate in epic form the formation of his country and its creation of an identity that carries through to today.
It begins fifteen years after Queen Suriyothai’s death with the Kingdom of Phitsanulok under siege from the Kingdom of Hongsawadee (Myanmar). The ruler of Phitsanulok is Naresuan’s father and the queen is the daughter of Suriyothai. Ayutthaya (ruled by Suriyothai’s son) has refused to come to their aid and so Phitsanulok is forced to surrender and ally itself with the Hongs. Naresuan at the age of ten is sent to Hongsawadee as a hostage where he is treated like a son by the Hong king and mentored by a wise monk. He also becomes friends with two other children who will stand him in good stead over the years - Bunteng an orphan and thief that Naresuan makes his servant and the girl orphan who lives in the temple, Manechan. Much of the first film plays out like Tom Sawyer with his friend Huck and the girl Becky getting into and out of mischief but becoming loyal friends. In the background war continues as the Hong’s invade Ayutthaya and capture it in 1569. Naresuan becomes aware that his life is in danger and escapes back to Siam – he is fifteen at the time. End of part I. The first part is basically just a lead up to part 2 – establishing characters, relationships, friendships and filling in historical context – you could in theory skip it and start with part 2 but it just would not mean as much. But Part 2 is where this film really takes off.
Naresuan is now a grown man (picked out from the cavalry by the director to play this role) - his father is the ruler in Ayutthaya but they are still a colony to the Hongs who have come to establish a large empire made of many such colonies all itching to be independent. Bunteng is his trusted advisor and a Lord while Manechan is still back in Hong tending to Naresuan’s sister who is a hostage and minor wife to the King. Soon all hell begins to break loose as Naresuan learns that the Prince of Hong is trying to kill him – this is the final straw and he declares the independence of his kingdom and a giant battle takes place on the banks of the Satong River in 1584. Throw into this brew a romance between a Bunteng and a warrior princess from Khang, head hunter assassins, betrayals, mad dashes to freedom, a mystic monk, rolling stacks of burning hay, thousands of dead bodies, sword fighting and you have a whiz bang story. The battle at the Satong River is something to behold – huge groups of men fighting and charging and individual exploits of heroism with Bunteng and his lady calmly and methodically killing scores of the enemy. It is a thrill. This has been compared by some to the Lord of the Rings and to some degree this is an apt comparison - though this minimizes the humor in Lord it captures much else of that made those films so special – the various allies that come together, a king with a destiny waiting for him, the friends that are beside him and a sense of this being of great importance. It ends with a victory but as Naresuan tells his troops this in only the beginning - Hong will attack with all their mighty force and they must be prepared. Part III to come. I can’t wait.
My rating for this film: Part I – 7.0, Part II – 8.5
Trailer Includes scenes from both Part 1 and II