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January 25, 2007

King Naresuan: Part I


Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Maharaj: Ong Prakan Hongsa
Chatrichalerm Yukol - 2007
Sahamongkol Film 35mm Film

I had to wait almost a week, but subtitled prints of Part One of the King Naresuan trilogy finally came to Chiang Mai. The film is doing well which is to expected being the only new film to open in the past two weeks, with saturated bookings on almost every screen in Thailand. Chatrichalerm Yukol is known in the west for the Francis Ford Coppola edited version of The Legend of Suriyothai. His new film has even greater ambitions than the earlier film, which is five hours long in the original Thai release. Part One clocks in at almost three hours, with a record length combined with a record budget for a Thai film. Chatrichalerm clearly wants to make the Thai equivalent to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and indeed recruited some of Peter Jackson's team to make his film. Chatrichalerm might have done better to have looked at a different trilogy, Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition films, to see how another filmmaker examined national identity against a historical background.

I have started viewing Chatrichalerm's earlier films on DVD. While his newer films are much more polished than his earlier work, they are connected by the same basic theme concerning Thai identity. The older films examined the ills of contemporary Thailand. The trilogy and Suriyothai can be viewed as films with the goals of instilling a sense of national pride for a country that has a tenuous grasp of its culture, and perhaps as justification for Thailand remaining essentially as a monarchy. Just as in the earlier films, characters are identified by their pride in being Thai or Siamese.

The first film is about Naresuan's boyhood. Taking place in the 16th Century, the Burmese king Bayinnaung, has conquered several Siamese kingdoms. Naresuan, the son of King Mahathammaracha, becomes the Bayinnaung's prisoner and protege. Naresuan, about nine years old at the time, distinguishes himself by his challenges to his captor. Naresuan receives formal education from a Buddhist monk, as well as learning from the Burmese king who stresses that battles are won both by weapons and intellect. Along the way, Naresuan picks up a companion in the form of a begger boy named Bunthing. The two become friends and protectors of a young girl living in the temple, Manechan. Focusing on young kids, the film gets a bit cloying with scenes of the two boys getting caned by the priest for getting involved with cock fighting, or young Naresuan making like Tony Jaa against two bulky opponents. Too often, Chatrichalerm seems to forget the difference between a film for kids as opposed to a film about kids.

Better yet are the scenes involving Bayinnaung demonstrating his pride, wisdom and foolishness. Also impressive are the battle scenes combining the ancient, with soldiers mounted on elephants, and the then fairly modern use of cannons and rifles. The big problem with King Naresuan is that Chatrichalerm has a big story to tell, with several characters who are related in various ways. While the narrative is not too difficult to follow, it occassionally gets confusing for an audience unfamiliar with Thai history. This is the kind of story that has the twists and turns that could easily be part of one of Shakespeare's tales of royal families. Because Chatrichalerm tried to make sure all of the details are covered, the film meanders from one set-up to the next. While Chatrichalerm has stated that each part of the trilogy can be seen as an individual feature, this first film functions primarily as the introduction for the next two films, ending with Naresuan's escape from Burma. Just before the final credits, there is a montage of battle scenes promising excitement in the next two episodes.

There are moments when it would seem that Chatrichalerm should take the lessons of some of his characters to heart with his filmmaking ambitions. King Naresuan is sometimes too big for itself, with too many characters and story lines. There is a character who get the gold, but drowns trying to carry the heavy treasure. The scene serves as an apt metaphor for Chatrichalerm, a sincere filmmaker overwhelmed by his desire to make the great Thai epic.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 25, 2007 03:49 AM


While the narrative is not too difficult to follow, it occassionally gets confusing for an audience unfamiliar with Thai history.

I saw Suriyothai at a critics' screening in Pittsburgh when I was writing for my college newspaper. After the film there was a lengthy discussion about the possibility that some of the reels were shown in the wrong order. Eventually it was determined that this was, in fact, the case, but our uncertainty is itself telling...

Posted by: AndyHorbal at January 25, 2007 11:03 AM

I just happened to pick up the five hour DVD of Suriyothai/i> a couple of days ago.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 25, 2007 07:47 PM