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Boudoir Bullies: The evil concubine lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) and her sinister maid (Jiravadee Israngura) plot against our heroine in 'The Legend of Suriyothai.'

Thai Another Day

'The Legend of Suriyothai' dishes up epic doses of blood, thunder and gold leaf

By Richard von Busack

CONSIDERING how many thrones were toppled in the last century, it's surprising how relatively few royals went into the picture business. A substantial amount of directors added "von" to their names, to indicate descent from the titled classes--Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg and Lars von Trier, for example. Luchino Visconti, who was Duke of Modrone, was a genuine blue blood, best known for an epic about the demise of the Italian aristocracy, The Leopard.

Italian comic Toto, who starred in Miracle in Milan, boasted a long list of extinct titles--he was a prince of Thessaly and Byzantium, among other honors. Sarah Churchill, Winston's daughter, descended from a line of dukes before appearing in the Fred Astaire movie Royal Wedding. Doubtlessly, one of the offspring of Princess Di will movie laterally into cinema, where the real money and respect is.

In Thailand, there is a long tradition of show-business royalty. Bhumibol, the American-born the king of Thailand crowned in 1950, wrote songs for one of showman Michael Todd's Broadway reviews. The director of the new Thai epic The Legend of Suriyothai, Chatri Chalerm Yukol, is a prince. His film was bankrolled by the queen of Thailand, who thought it offered a good way to teach Thai history and nationalism.

Prince Chatri is a longtimer in the Thai film industry. Chatri's father--a personage described in the press notes as "His Royal Highness Anusorn"--directed the film Lavo in 1938. Incidentally, while living in L.A., Prince Chatri apprenticed under producer Merian C. Cooper, who made what film historians believe to be the first film shot in Thailand, 1927's Chang.

Chatri's epic, about the hazardous early 1500s, is carved down from a longer TV version. What's left contains enough visual sweep to be endorsed by Francis Ford Coppola. Those hoping for rich, gorgonzolalike spectacle won't be disappointed. Chatri has almost perfectly re-created a 1950s-style widescreen epic. The final battle sequence features a herd of charging war elephants, their faces painted scarlet and black like Darth Maul. Some vaguely defined involvement by the Portuguese means the royal military armor is mixed with elaborate cuirasses, blunderbusses and cannons.

The movie stuffs you with gold-leafed palanquins and palaces. These Thais of the 1500s were a people who stood on ceremony (one bit of protocol seems unique: a method of kneeling and walking at the same time; this sometime has to be done backward, to avoid showing a lord your disrespectful back).

The Legend of Suriyothai tells a busy, turgid story, introducing every possible kind of mayhem from child execution to earthquakes, comets and a plague of smallpox. Smallpox-phobes really need to see this to note how nightmarish the disease can be; the makeup is robustly gross. And as in almost all epics, The Legend of Suriyothai sedates the viewer. Solemn narration bridges the gaps of the material. The young Suriyothai must reject love for duty. "And so," the narrator intones, unnecessarily, "Suriyothai made the first of many sacrifices for her country."

The action follows a portion of turbulent Thai history that resembles the English War of the Roses. Thus the non-Thai viewer is exactly in the position of watching excerpts of Shakespeare's Lancastrian Cycle without some kind of a score card. The narrator names all the kings and kingmakers, the regents and the child kings, whether in contention or alliance. There are more monarchs here than there are in Pacific Grove.

The Burmese king deserves more scenes; he has golden-scaled armor and a big pouting crimson mouth. He's as decadent as an Aubrey Beardsley drawing come to life. Why don't we get to spend more time with him? He looks capable of some interesting wickedness, and the film is undervillained.

In the last hour, a character emerges who is something like Henry VI's Margaret of Anjou--"O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide." She's an evil concubine named Lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) who knocks off her husband, marries her foreign lover and starts purging her opponents. (One of the subplots trimmed from the TV version seems to have something to do with this evil lady's equally corrupt maid, who bears whip scars on her back.)

It's a major disappointment that no final battle takes place between this female usurper and our hero queen, Suriyothai (played with matronly gravity by M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi). Historical accuracy be damned, I've never seen such an off-handed killing of the villain.

While the scale here is vast, it's probably no surprise that Prince Chatri Chalem Yukol lacks a common touch. The Legend of Suriyothai is an aristocrat's version of an epic. He endorses a world in which the peasants' place is prone, face turned to the earth. This queen's ultimate sacrifice seems fairly minor compared to the peasants who get speared, slashed and decapitated.

The Legend of Suriyothai (Unrated; 142 min.), directed and written by Chatri Chalerm Yukol, photographed by Stanislav Dorsic and Igor Luther and starring M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi and Mai Charoenpura, plays at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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