I Am Siam

The Legend of Suriyothai gives 16th-century Thailand an epic identity

If, in keeping with current fads, you seek movies featuring females kicking a bunch of ass, your appetite will be tended (and cultivated) at the multiplex all summer long. Wander into your local art house, however, and you may find a fine if somewhat challenging import called The Legend of Suriyothai -- billed a bit misleadingly as the story of a "woman warrior" but better defined as an epic of grand proportions on par with DeMille or Lean. Indeed, the titular Thai Queen's story frames the film, and she does briefly enter battle astride a richly ornamented elephant, but this complex and intricate tale goes beyond her fairly simple heroics into royal court intrigues, backstabbing, corruption, conspiracy, scandal, and insurrection -- all the things that make a country great.

Executive-produced and recut by Francis Ford Coppola, this lavish and captivating production by veteran Thai director Chatri Chalerm Yukol transports us to another world where even the film stock seems imbued with a timeless classic quality. Starting in 1528 and spanning the 16th century, the story unfolds to reveal the southern Siamese kingdom of Ayothaya, assaulted from within by ever-shifting alliances and without by the rough-and-ready oppressors of Burma.

When we first meet young Suriyothai (Pimolrat Pisolyabutras), life is magical and beautiful. But Suriyothai is disinterested, even petulant. Feeling the pangs of teenhood, she sneaks away to enjoy a brief secret encounter with her cousin, the young noble Lord Piren, who pledges to her his body and brain. Still, she explains, "All I want is an elephant," and pretty soon, she's betrothed to young Prince Tien, who comes with a pachyderm.

Even if you're a regular at Thai restaurants, the magnificence of every glittering detail here should delight your Western senses. Suriyothai is a feast for the eyes.

Once Queen Suriyothai and Tien -- now King Mahachakrepat -- reach adulthood (played rather stoically by M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi and Sarunyoo Wongkrchang), the kingdom of Ayothaya's going to hell in a tuk-tuk. Kingdoms battle one another, old monarchs die, villainies are committed, and disreputable hippies invade Ayothaya.

The sensual royal consort Lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) is a Siamese Lady Macbeth and far and away this movie's most interesting character. Heads literally roll due to her meddling, her king meets a ghastly fate, and soon her no-account minstrel boyfriend, Lord Warawongsa (Johnny Anfone, the Thai Colin Farrell?) worms his way into orifice, er, office. One of several interwoven subplots.

 
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