Dir. Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Thai 2001/US 2002. 154mins
This mammoth historical pageant, originally directed by a prince who is also one of his country's leading filmmakers, broke all home box office records in Thailand last summer, grossing over $14 million, about three times as much as Titanic did in that territory. Picked up since by Francis Ford Coppola, who re-cut it to suit the demands of the international market, it was unveiled anew in San Sebastian as the first step in the worldwide sales offensive to be launched next year.
Half an hour shorter, with a re-mixed and re-edited Dolby Digital soundtrack courtesy of the American Zoetrope Studios, this sprawling, visually stunning epic, will require careful handling in the US if it is to deliver anything more than prestige. At 154 minutes long, with enough plots to fill up a dozen films, and numerous historical references largely unfamiliar to western audiences, it remains a daunting prospect for marketeers even in its revamped version. Cinema Vault, which has international sales, may have an easier time selling it to arthouse distributors in other parts of the world.
The $11m production, Thailand's most expensive ever, is a spectacular in every sense of the word that took five years to research and 17 months to complete. Sets and costumes are breathtaking and battle scenes of gigantic dimensions, complete with elephants, spear-carrying amazons and thousands of foot soldiers. A chronicle, almost didactically delivered, of Thai events that took place in the first half of the 16th century, this is not, as the title suggests, the story of princess Suriyothai who became queen and sacrificed her life to save the crown. Instead she is restricted to a small part in the rich fabric of plots and intrigues, wars and betrayals, bloodshed and political corruption which unfold on the screen.
If the final result falls short, in Western eyes, of expectations, it is mostly because the project, originally destined to introduce the young Thai generation to its own history, sacrificed everything else to that end. As a result the film stresses the grandeur of the past but wastes no time on emotions and allows no character to develop beyond the strict requirements of the historical canvass.
Frequent title cards bring some order to the dramatic rush of events and give the countless characters some perspective. Even so, despite its considerable length, Suriyothai can not devote much time to any of them. And likeable as the performers are, their acting is mostly on the declamatory side.
Technical credits are superb overall: as a lesson in Thai history, customs and etiquette, the result is indeed irreproachable. However Coppola, who more than 30 years ago entered a similar venture when he launched the Soviet version of War And Peace in America, will face an uphill struggle trying to turn the same trick again, given the changes that have taken place since in the film market and its audiences.
Prod co: Prommitr Production Co
US dist: Sony Picture Classics
Int'l sales (exc N Am, Aus): Cinema Vault Canada
Prods: Kamla Yukol
Assoc prods: Francis Ford Coppola, Kim Aubry
Scr: Chatrichalerm Yukol, Sunait Chutintaranond
Cinematography: Igor Luther, Stanislav Dorsic, Anupap Boachan
Ed: Chatrichalerm Yukol, Pattamanadda Yukol
Prod des: Prasopcok Thanasetvirai, Prasert Posrirat, Chetsada Prunarakard
Music: Richard Harvey
Main cast: Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, Sarunyoo Wongkrchang, Chatchai Plengpanich, Johnny Anfone, Mai Charoenpura