"Bang Rajan," which recounts a legendary tale in Thai history, is named after a small rural village whose vastly outnumbered residents courageously defended the repeated onslaught of Burmese invaders in 18th century Siam, the former name for Thailand.
In a way, the film's success in its home country against far bigger-budgeted Hollywood imports mirrors the heroic stand of the villagers it depicts. Visually distinctive and shot with a documentary feel that takes audiences inside the action in an intimate, visceral way, it also illustrates the renewed vigor of Thai filmmaking.
Directed by Thanit Jitnukul and produced by Adirek Watleela, the powerful war drama not only garnered 11 Suraswadee Awards (Thailand's version of the Oscars), including best director and best picture, but also raked in twice as much at the local box office as James Cameron's Hollywood blockbuster "Titanic." "Bang Rajan" reigns domestically as the second-highest-grossing film in Thailand's history with $10 million.
"When we made it, we had no idea how popular it would be," Jitnukul says. "We had the story and we just wanted to film that to the best of our ability. We were shocked."
Director Oliver Stone, who happened to watch the film one hot afternoon at a friend's house in Bangkok while scouting locations for "Alexander," was so impressed he arranged for its release in the United States. "Bang Rajan" opened Friday in Los Angeles and will open at theaters in Boston, Chicago and New York later this month.
For Watleela and Jitnukul the best thing about the film is that its box-office success has given them artistic freedom. "It gave me the opportunity to make movies that I wanted to make," Jitnukul says. "If it hadn't made money," Watleela added, "I would have had to make movies that they wanted me to make -- like 'Anaconda,' mindless action movies."
Of the dozens of Thai movies that come out every year, only two or three make a profit, Watleela says, adding that "Bang Rajan" has funded many of the smaller art movies he produced.
But "Bang Rajan" may be one of the rare films that appeals to audiences at home and abroad. "Because the tastes of the mass audience in Thailand are different ... it's extremely difficult to make a movie that's popular both in Thailand and outside" the country, he says. "The only exception is action movies."
Gods and warriors
Reunited after making their first two films together 19 years ago, Jitnukul and Watleela, who were interviewed at the Sofitel hotel in Los Angeles, see themselves as leaders in a vanguard movement. "We have to fight to get our movies seen overseas," Jitnukul says. "We are just like the village warriors in Bang Rajan," Watleela agrees. "We made the movie with our hearts. Not to make money."
To research the film, Jitnukul traveled to the site where the village of Bang Rajan was located in a province called Sing Buri and "found old Thais who had passed on the traditions and the knowledge from generation to generation," he says. A statue honors the 11 heroes of Bang Rajan. "We prayed to the gods of those heroes and asked for permission to make a movie about them."
When Jitnukul first brought the actors to the site, Chumporn Taephitak and Jaran Ngamdee, who play village warriors Dear and Chan, respectively, took an afternoon nap (a Thai tradition), and each dreamed of one man dressed as a warrior who asked if the actor was going to portray him in a movie, Jitnukul says. The warrior told each actor to play him well.
Before filming began, all the actors demanded a ceremony to pray to the spirits of their ancestors for protection during filming, Watleela says, especially the actors who were playing Burmese. "They wanted the gods to know that they were not really Burmese."
Throughout history, there have been "regular wars" between the Burmese and the Thai, Watleela explains, and tensions are still high today. Recently, Burmese authorities confiscated videos of "Bang Rajan" at the border because they didn't want the Burmese to see it. At a film festival in Japan, the Burmese embassy protested the showing of "Bang Rajan," so Watleela had to use another movie instead, he says. "But we weren't upset because we got a free trip to Japan out of it," says Jitnukul, who admits that he is still not brave enough to vacation in Burma. "Every country is patriotic and has its heroes and its wars and its history," he adds. "Burma has its own heroes."
"Bang Rajan" is the third film made about the villagers who held off an army of 100,000 soldiers for five months during eight battles.
Stone, who helped Jitnukul and Watleela make a deal with American distributor Magnolia Pictures after he returned to the States, believes this film is "eternal -- it doesn't matter that it was made three years ago."