Suriyothai

Director: Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol
Year: 2001
Starring: M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi (Queen Suriyothai), Johnny Anfone, Marisa Anita, Sorapong Chatri , Siriwimol Charoenpura, Ronrittichai Khanket
Time: 210 minutes (Thai version)

Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol has been one of Thailand’s premiere directors since his debut film in 1972 with “It Comes with the Darkness”. A distant member of the royal family, he studied film at UCLA and has directed some thirty films of which “The Elephant Keeper” and “Kong” have met with some international recognition. Nothing that he had done though was nearly on the same scale as Suriyothai. This is an enormous film detailing 20 years of history on a grand colorful canvass – it took 2 years to make and used over 2,000 extras, some 80 elephants and 70 horses in the production. A painful attention to historical detail was sought and the film revels in the magnificent costumes, the ornate decorations, the stunning temples and palaces, the elegant décor and the formal manner in which people composed themselves at that time. From this perspective, Suriyothai is an extremely impressive achievement and is worth seeing just for the spectacle alone.

In other ways though the film fails on some basic levels. In the first cut the running time came in between seven and eight hours and the director had to pare it down to about 3 ½ hours and perhaps something was lost in doing so (of course Coppolo is now cutting it even further for a possible US release). For all of its rich detail, there is little attention paid to developing the characters beyond simplistic notions of honourable or dishonourable. Everyone is basically a cardboard character and there is absolutely no sense of intimacy brought into their lives. As such, the film never pulls you in emotionally – it plays out more like a very interesting big budget recreation on the History Channel as the narrator describes the unfolding of historical events and they are re-enacted on screen. But it is wonderful pageantry – the charging of the elephants, the storming of fortresses, the regal barges floating down the river, the palace crowd scenes are all terrific stuff.
I would actually love to see this on the big screen and actually would love to see the entire 8 hours (though not at one sitting!) to see if more character development takes place - and I am certainly curious to know what was edited out. The film is not perhaps the easiest to follow (in particular to those with little knowledge of Thai history such as myself) as there are many characters introduced, many factions to keep track of and simply trying to understand the relationship of everyone is a bit taxing but doable. There is also a sudden transition in which all the young actors are replaced by older ones and Suriyothai seems to have aged 20-years in a four year jump.
In general, the film tells the tale of the monarchy over a period of 20-years and it is filled with intrigue, struggles for power and betrayal – sort of a Thai “I, Claudius”. The film begins in the year of 1528 and at the time the Kingdom was divided into two areas that were ruled by brothers from the Suphannaburi dynasty and all was quite peaceful. One ruled in the north in Pitsanulok and the other ruled in Ayothaya to the south. Princess Suriyothai is from another line of the royal family – the Phra Ruang dynasty – and she is in love with a distant cousin – Lord Pirin. She is chosen though by the Crown Prince Tien to be his wife and she becomes his loyal and able supporter and advisor. Within four years though the royal family begins to unravel – the death of both brothers in a short time span leads to the country being lead by a small boy and Prince Chai Raja (Prince Tien’s brother) leads a coup to bring the entire country under his rule. After his wife dies in childbirth though, he takes a consort – Princess Srisudachan – from the royal line of U-thong. This is when the film starts getting quite intriguing as she conspires to bring her family back into possession of the throne and will stop at nothing to do so – and has a small group of female assassins to do her dirty work. Prince Tien and Suriyothai are seen as obstacles and she sends ninja like killers (Khmer assassins) to eliminate them.
In reality, there is very little known about the life of Suriyothai – basically only her heroic death (which is where the film actually begins) has been recorded – so the director admits that much of the screenplay is fictional though I believe much of the historical background is based on fact. It’s an interesting film – never particularly gripping or involving – but far from dull as it moves at a rapid pace – and it has some great moments and heroic characters.

The film is available on Thai DVD and VCD with subtitles.

My rating for this film: 7.5