I am curious about the international presence of all those international epic sagas that are made with the ambition to showcase glorious national history. Such films are suitable mostly for internal national usage, but in some cases get exported world-wide, even though remaining self-contained and of limited niche interest in the context of such releases.
A project of this kind was in the centre of attention in my native country, Bulgaria, in 1981 – the year when the 1300 anniversary of the establishment of the first Bulgarian state in 681 was being celebrated. The film 681- Velichieto na hana was an epic saga telling the glorious history of the nation’s founding father, Khan Aszparuh. Based on a novel by respected historian Vera Mutafchieva, the film was made in two versions. Khan Aszparuh (1981) was an extended three-part Bulgarian version, whereas 681: Velichieto na hana/ 681: The Glory of the Khan (1981) was an English language version of the same film, based on the same script, made by the same director and starring the same actors, only shorter and made with international export in mind. Needless to say, the film went largely unnoticed internationally. Nonetheless, this is one of the few Bulgarian films that can still be found in vernacular Western distribution today, and certainly a curios project that provides a good glimpse into the way such national epics are produced and publicized. I have occasionally had the chance to hear from American and West European academics engaged in teaching Bulgarian culture and history that they have used the film in the context of their work.
Kazakh-financed Nomad, for example, a technically proficient epic tale of the glorious beginnings of the Kazakh nation in the 18th century filmed on the initiative of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, was tackled as a project of national importance and made for $40 million with French assistance. It dealt with alternative narratives of the Kazakh past aiming to give boost to emancipating the nation’s historical identity from the Soviet shadow. Conceived and executed as a product clearly geared toward international markets, the project was completed with the directorial involvement of well-known diasporic US-based Europeans (Czech Ivan Passer and Russian Sergei Bodrov). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and distributed by the Weinstein Company who secured an international and a North American release, but only had limited impact.
Similarly, the US distribution of Suriyothai, a lavish 16-th century spectacle of national pride from Thailand, featuring majestic battles and elephant battles that are said to have directly influenced Oliver Stone Alexander’s Asian battle scenes, was treated as a project of utmost national importance, aimed at getting the film a foreign Oscar nomination (Jirattikorn, 2003). Its carefully-orchestrated U.S. release took place with assistance from Francis Ford Coppola, a personal friend of director Yukol, who adapted a version of the film for the North American market. North American theatrical distribution was handled by Sony Picture Classics (which placed a total of twenty two prints in circulation) and the DVD – by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, making Suriyothai one of the few Thai films readily available in the West. It enjoyed good critical reception but it did not bring significant revenues.
Clearly, such national projects remain of utmost significance within the context of the producing nation. It is often the case that all instances of foreign distribution and acclaim for these films are given disproportionate attention domestically, thus creating the impression that the national saga has been truly influential internationally. In reality, these are films that remain primarily of academic interest and most often end up used in the context of area studies. In her analysis of the discourse surrounding Suriyothai, for example, anthropologist Amporn Jirattikorn (2003) argues that the film’s construction of ‘Thai-ness’ effectively promotes a narrative of self-sufficiency and positive isolationism, thus furthering the ideology of the ability of Thailand to remain intact by colonizing flows and to maintain its sovereignty today like it has been able to do in the past. And indeed, given the fact that Suriyothai was distributed internationally but never reached the popularity that had been planned for it, it may be noteworthy that Thais have not made further efforts to get into Western distribution the two subsequent epic dramas made by Suriyothai’s director Yukol, thus confirming Jirattikorn’s commentary on the ideological underpinnings of self-sufficiency, conscious distancing from the West and focusing on cultivating discourse on Thailand’s history exclusively within the country. Could it be that the decision of the Thais is suggestive of an attitude that is skeptical of the chances for an intra-cultural dialogue? And if this is the case, is this stance limited only to those Asian nations that are known for isolationist national ideology or it reflects a wider approach?
*Jirattikorn, Amporn. ‘Suriyothai: Hybridizing Thai National Identity Through Film,’ Journal of Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. Volume 4, Issue 2, August 2003, p. 296-308.
* * See dedicated pieces on Nomad, Suriyothai and other recent international epics in the Epic Cinema section of DinaView.
© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009