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It's just a Thai royal custom

Filmmaking is a tradition in Prince Chatri's family. He draws on that heritage for a drama about a legendary queen.

June 18, 2003|David Chute | Special to The Times

Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol, a scion of the Thai royal family, is a slender, soft-spoken, gray-haired gentleman who speaks lightly accented English fluently and looks at least a decade younger than his given age of 60. He is also a world-class film director, one of Thailand's best.

"The Legend of Suriyothai" is the 23rd film the prince has made since his low-budget science-fiction debut, "Out of the Dark" in 1971. "Suriyothai" depicts a complex historical period in which four royal dynasties jockeyed for dominance. Murderous palace conflicts ooze to the surface just an as army from neighboring Burma (Myanmar) pours across the northern border.

The title character, Queen Suriyothai, is said to have ridden her elephant into battle against the Burmese in 1548, risking her life to defend her husband and the nation. The Sony Classics Pictures release opens Friday in Los Angeles.

A link between moviemaking and royalty isn't a novelty in Thailand, it's a tradition. Prince Chatri's father, Prince Anusorn Mongkolgala, was a Thai cinema pioneer who apprenticed under "King Kong" directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack when they filmed the silent docudrama "Chang" in Thailand in 1927. His son studied geology and film at UCLA in the 1960s, and became friendly with classmate Francis Ford Coppola. Almost 40 years later, Coppola's company, American Zoetrope, is presenting Chatri's lavish battle epic to U.S. moviegoers.

Before "Suriyothai," Prince Chatri had never made an identifiably "royal" movie. Although his reputation is tempered by his longevity, in his homeland he is known as a stalwart independent and something of a radical. The films that established his reputation were mostly about social outcasts: mob hit men, drug smugglers and prostitutes. Chatri says he simply isn't interested in making films about the world he already knows well, and he is famous for meticulous research. He lived for nine months in a brothel when he was writing "The Angel" (1974) and drove around Bangkok for weeks with cab drivers gathering anecdotes for "The Citizen" (1977).

Financial freedom

The main perk of Chatri's status has been financial independence. He has been able to pay for most of his movies out his own pocket. While other royals were acquiring yachts and racehorses, he was accumulating movie cameras and editing equipment. He told an interviewer in 1993, "I feel I have the freedom to do anything I want, which most people don't have."

Several of Chatri's earlier films are available on DVD with English subtitles from the online retailer "Salween" is a violent film set in a lawless area near the Thai-Burma border. The action scenes, especially sequences depicting the flight of a band of Burmese rebels pursued by helicopters across the Salween River into Thailand, show that the epic physical sweep of "Suriyothai" is nothing new for this director.

It would have been beyond the resources even of a prince, however, to self-finance "Suriyothai." The movie's lavish reconstructions were said to cost around 250 million Bhat, or $5 million, an unheard of sum for Thailand. Reigning monarch Queen Sirikit instigated "Suriyothai," financed most of it, and arranged for palaces and historic sites to be opened to a film crew for the first time. Three thousand Thai army soldiers were ordered to work as extras in the battle scenes, along with 160 elephants.

Some of the queen's contributions may be less fortuitous. Discerning filmgoers will not be surprised to learn, for example, that M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, who plays the title role, is not an actress. In fact she is Queen Sirikit's royal dresser, or lady in waiting, handpicked for the part by her majesty. If the prince has any reservations about this casting decision, he has not expressed them.

But in terms of its content, the prince insists, the movie is completely his, and it is not a whitewashed view of Thai history. He based his research not on official Thai sources, but on a book written by Portuguese diplomat Domingo de Seixas in the late 1500s. "De Seixas was a neutral observer," Chatri says, "reporting to his own king, and he had no reason to lie."

Some aspects of the legend that sounded like folklore were later confirmed by research. A fiery omen known as "the arrow in the sky" corresponded with the historical appearance of Halley's comet in 1531.

Other details were validated during the five-year pre-production phase. "When you actually do it," Chatri says, "it all makes sense. Why do their weapons look the way they do, a long spear with an extra hook on it? What for? Is it a goad for the elephant? When you actually put people on elephants and try to fight, you understand. The hook is to grab onto the other person's elephant, so you can draw it in close enough to strike."

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