14 August 2003 | ggrihn
This is a beautiful epic film set in historical Thailand during a turbulent period about 1526AD into the 1530's. There is an interesting story behind the making of this film. Apparently, Chatrichalerm Yukol, the writer and director is a member of the sprawling Thai royal family (as is SF/Horror writer S.P. Somtow). The Thais have never been happy with films about Thailand, so much so that neither the Yul Brenner film "The King and I," or the more recent "Anna and the King" have ever been legally exhibited there. Yukol had made several well-respected "art" films. He was attending a family function when the Queen of Thailand asked him why he couldn't make a good film about Thai history. Taking this as a royal command, he spent three years researching and writing this story about a famous past queen. Evidently, going from directing small, intimate, modern films to a full-blown historical epic with thousands of extras, cannon, and elephants was quite a transition. However, the result is lovely.
The story commences as Suriyothai, a young princess, is betrothed to Prince Thienraja, who is virtuous but rather dull. She prefers her childhood friend, Lord Srithep, but agrees to "sacrifice" her own desires for the good of the Kingdom, which is the first of a series of difficult decisions she is called upon to make. We see Thailand as a country with a beautiful and sophisticated culture, every bit the equal of the Japan of the era, but under stress from rebellious provinces and foreign invaders. A series of royal deaths from disease, disaster, and assassination brings about a dynastic struggle in which Suriyothai organizes a rebellion against a usurper that brings her husband to the throne. (As King Mahachakrepat--the way in which people take new names as they gain rank can be confusing.) She then has to don armor and mount an elephant to aid her husband in defending the country from the Burmese invaders seeking to exploit the general disorder.
The film was cut from a four-hour Thai original to 185 minutes for Western release, and is consequently somewhat choppy, but still easy to follow if you are attentive. I was fascinated by this bit of history in a region of the world where I had known nothing. English subtitles were easy to follow, because, unlike some French or Japanese films, we've seen lately, it takes longer to say the same things in Thai than English, so the titles stay on the screen long enough to follow. Cinematography and settings were beautiful, and gave opportunity for some unique battle scenes, including one between river galleys, and the climactic fight which involves jousting from elephant back.
I've seen criticisms from other viewers that essentially echoed critiques of films like "Gods and Generals,"--that it lacked plot. Get with it people--history doesn't need a plot, history IS the plot.