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Pomp and pachyderms

With DeMille-like ambition, a Thai epic relies on pageantry to tell a rich historical tale that's rife with royal intrigue.

June 20, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to talk about "The Legend of Suriyothai," the most ambitious Thai film ever made, without sounding like a carnival pitchman screaming factoids that a showman like Cecil B. DeMille would've envied:

* Years in the Making!

* Hours on the Screen!

* Directed by a Prince and Financed by a Queen!

* A Cast of Thousands, a Crew of Hundreds, More Concubines Than a Harem, More Elephants Than Barnum & Bailey!

* Dancing Girls and Dynasties in Danger, Fighting Amazons and Fierce Tuskers, Weddings and Beheadings and ... well, you get the idea.

Made in an old-fashioned style of filmmaking about a time that is long past, "Suriyothai" is a sprawling historical epic that covers 20 years in the life of a celebrated 16th century Thai queen who made sacrifice after sacrifice for the good of her country. She really did.

Directed by Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol and supported by Thailand's current Queen Sirikit (who wanted to encourage interest in her country's history), "Suriyothai" is more of a vast procession than anything else, a rich tapestry that plays like an authorized state visit to a very different culture a long time ago.

Hardly in a hurry, "Suriyothai" has a two-hour, 22-minute running time, cut down from an original three hours and 10 minutes by Francis Ford Coppola (who took a "Presents" credit). You may think that a longer version would be difficult to imagine, but once you get into this film's leisurely rhythms, it's the kind of thing you could watch for days.

Despite its genteel pace, "Suriyothai" demonstrates that all kinds of things were happening in the two decades following 1528 in what was then called Ayuthaya. The film's plot complications are almost Shakespearean in their mixture of betrayals, vendettas and underhanded palace intrigues.

"Suriyothai" also has vast battle scenes, complete with fighting monks who scream, "Burn in hell!," injured warriors who cauterize wounds with red-hot pokers and 160 gaudily painted and battle-hardened elephants.

For those whose tastes are not quite so warlike, "Suriyothai" has other pleasures, like traditional singing, ceremonies with unusual headgear, and beautiful royal consorts in presumably authentic, off-the-shoulder gowns who recline on divans in luxurious palaces.

When we first meet Suriyothai (Piyapas Bhirombhakdi), she's a young princess who seems more like a Valley Girl than a member of the royal family. "Oh rules, rules, rules," she sniffs to an attendant. "I'm sick to death of rules." Suriyothai is down on rules because they are keeping her from her true love, a handsome warrior named Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich), but worse is still to come. The good of the state demands that she consent to a loveless marriage with Prince Thien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang), the son of one of the country's two kings.

In a film that has more kings and princes than the Pentagon has generals, the ins and outs of dynastic succession can be confusing, but in broad outline "Suriyothai's" melodrama contours are not hard to follow.

Especially noteworthy is the parallel story of a devious royal consort in another part of the country. That would be Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura), in some ways Suriyothai's metaphorical evil twin, who schemes to restore her dynasty to power. Royals or not, it's a jungle out there.

Also involved when things get unstable are the nefarious Burmese, Thailand's traditional enemies, always looking for an opportunity to up and invade. It's a good thing that Suriyothai has matured into a woman of great wisdom and fortitude because those are exactly the qualities her country will be needing.

As you might have guessed by now, "Suriyothai" is not the place to go look for nuanced, deeply emotional performances. The acting is inevitably on the formal side, suitable for the pageant this film is. But don't let that dissuade you. They won't be making another film like this any time soon, and the chance to see all those elephants is not one you get every day.

*

'The Legend of Suriyothai'

MPAA rating: R, for violence and some nudity

Times guidelines: Scenes of violence, several beheadings.

Piyapas Bhirombhakdi ... Suriyothai

Sarunyoo Wongkrchang ... Thien

Chatchai Plengpanich ... Piren

Johnny Anfone ... Warawongsa

Mai Charoenpura ... Srisudachan

Francis Ford Coppola presents, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Producer Kamla Yukol. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Kim Aubry. Screenplay Chatri Chalerm Yukol, Sunait Chutintaranond. Cinematographers Igor Luther, Stanislav Dorsic, Anupap Boachan. Editors Chatri Chalerm Yukol, Pattamanadda Yukol. Music Richard Harvey. Art directors Prasopcok Thanasetvirai, Prasert Posrirat, Chetsada Prunarakard. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.

In limited release.

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