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Independence day

Veteran director Thanit Jitnukul deftly guides an ensemble cast in 'Bang Rajan,' a film that so impressed Oliver Stone that he helped get it distributed in the U.S.

August 06, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Bang RAJAN is the name of a Siamese village that in 1765-66 managed against overwhelming odds to stave off hordes of Burmese invaders through eight bloody battles. As did the Texans at the Alamo in their struggle for independence from Mexico in 1836, the villagers finally lost, but their heroism foreshadowed ultimate victory.

The key figures among the villagers have become mythological characters in Thai history, and they have been brought to life in Thanit Jitnukul's glorious epic "Bang Rajan," which so impressed Oliver Stone that he is presenting the film through an American distributor, Magnolia Pictures. Declaring the film "a masterpiece of the new Thai cinema," Stone has said: "It seems fitting for the American people to be reminded of the sacrifices people have made to defend their lands."

In 1763, King Mang Ra ascended the throne of neighboring Burma, which was plagued by rebellions spreading along its southeast border with Siam. Because the provincial Burmese chieftains were receiving support from Siam, the king decided he had no choice but to invade the country in order to diminish Siamese influence in the region. He divided his well-equipped army into two battalions of 100,000 men each. One battalion was to proceed west, directly to Siam's capital, Ayutthaya; the other was to march from the north. It was this battalion that was held up so long at Bang Rajan.

Residents of most villages fled in terror from the brutal Burmese invaders, but Bang Rajan seems to have been blessed with a strong leader, Po Tan (Chumporn Taephitak), who inspired his people to resist. Po Tan also lined up a strong support team, many of whom had come from abandoned villages to cast their lot with Bang Rajan.

Chan Inn (Winaj Kraibutr) is an ace archer with a devoted young wife, Sa (Bongkod Kongmalai, a 15-year-old newcomer). When Po Tan is wounded, he shifts his leadership to Nai Jan Nuad Kiew (Jaran Ngamdee), a fiercely mustached and muscular expert at wielding an ax. Another key refugee joining the cause is the hard-drinking but fearless Tong Menn (Bin Banleurit).

Sensing the need for spiritual leadership in the oncoming battles, Po Tan persuades Venerable Father Dhammachote (Teerayuth Pratyabamrung) to leave his temple and move to Bang Rajan to counsel and comfort the villagers. Among the key locals are Po Tan's headstrong daughter, Taeng Onn (Soontree Maila-or), and young Meuang (Atthakorn Suwannaraj), who saves her from rape.

Jitnukul defines these individuals plus several others so sharply that the characters remain remarkably distinct and involving, even through a thicket of plot developments and complicated military maneuvers.

If historically "Bang Rajan" recalls the Alamo, the film it most strongly evokes is Akira Kurosawa's classic "Seven Samurai." Although gifted and imaginative, Jitnukul is not the sophisticated master of three-dimensional characterization and innovative style that Kurosawa was, but his film has tremendous bravura and energy all the same. Like most members of Po Tan's key team, Kurosawa's samurai are outsiders hired by villagers to protect them from periodic attacks by bandits. Like "Seven Samurai," "Bang Rajan" allows villagers and refugee fighters to become acquainted and involved in one another's lives as they forge a common goal and destiny.

The resisters' ingenuity and resourcefulness equal their bravery. Government officials in Ayutthaya refuse Bang Rajan's request for cannons, believing they will simply fall into the hands of the enemy, who will then use them in the siege of the capital. The villagers respond by attempting to make their own cannons by melting the shields and suits of armor taken from slain Burmese. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Bang Rajan defenders, armed with swords, bows and arrows, axes and only a few primitive rifles, repeatedly employ clever and daring tactics.

Not for a second does Jitnukul lose control of his complex and captivating epic, dynamically photographed by Vichien Ruangvichayakul and scored with a bold eclectic flair by composer Chatchai Pongprapaphan.

From one adroitly staged sequence to another, the vigorous "Bang Rajan" moves with a sure sense of direction and authority to its major culminating battle, a singularly savage and wrenching encounter that for all its bloodshed is never exploitative and concludes the film on a resounding note of tragic grandeur.

*

'Bang Rajan'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong warfare violence

Winaj Kraibutr...Chan Inn

Bin Banleurit...Tong Menn

Chumporn Taephitak...Po Tan

Jaran Ngamdee...Nai Jan Nuad Kiew

Soontree Maila-or...Taeng Onn

An Oliver Stone presentation of a Magnolia Pictures release. Director Thanit Jitnukul. Producer Adirek (Uncle) Watleela. Screenplay by Konget Komsiri, Boontin Tuaykaew, Patikarn Petchmunee, Thanit Jitnukul, Sittpong Mattanavee. Cinematographer Vichien Ruangvichayakul. Editors Sunit Asvinikul, Thanin Tienkaew. Music Chatchai Pongprapaphan. Costumes Thiraphan Chancharoen. Production designer Boontin Tuaykaew. In Thai, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

At the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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