Suriyothai (Thailand, 2001), Chatrichalerm Yukol

June 14, 2008 at 12:31 am

Set in the 16th century, featuring battles with Burmese invaders, multiple levels of court intrigue and treacherous erotic subplots The Legend of Suriyothai was made with the direct endorsement (and financial support) of Thailand’s royal family for an amount estimated at being anywhere between $6 and $15 million US. Having premiered on the Queen’s birthday in 2001, at the time of its release it was not only the most expensive Thai film, but also the top grossing one. Its director, Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol (b. 1942), is himself a member of the extended royal circle (nineteenth in line for the throne), and a descendant of a veteran film producing family. He studied at UCLA in the 1960s where he got a minor in film, and is one of Thailand’s most reputable filmmakers.

It appears that the film, looking into a web of deception and majestic battles that all occurred during the turbulent times of Princess Suriyothai’s rule of the Ayothaya kingdom, is one of these projects of national importance that are meant to counter an existing international image and bring in one’s own narrative of glorious national past (similar to the case of the more recent Kazakh production Nomad). But this appears to be correct only to a certain extent, as the Thais did not engage in bringing in foreign stars or directors for the project (as is typical for the grandiose nationalistic historical epics) but made the film by mostly engaging local talent. True, there is some foreign involvement (American composer and visual effects supervisor, Czech cameramen), but not much. It is largely a domestic effort, featuring spectacular epic battles, warfare involving 160 elephants, and thousands of extras. Like many epic films made in smaller countries with centralized government power, the scores of extras that Yukol is able to cast in battle scenes are supplied by the country’s army and navy who were simply assigned to the production (a practice known from the epic historical productions made in the former communist East European countries).

The discussions of Suriyothai normally reference it to ‘the usual suspects’: films like Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), 300 (2006), Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc (1999), the Indian Asoka (2001), but also to Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), and another Thai epic, Bangrajan (2000). Nothing that many of these were made after Suriyothai, which dates from 2001, one wonders if one can see the film as having influence Zhang Yimou’s, Oliver Stone’s, or Ridley Scott’s visions?

Even though the film seems to have been intended to educating young Thais about their history and that there is no evidence that it was made with the intention to counter the traditional Western image of exotic Siam known from films such as The King and I (1956) and Anna and the King (1999), the American release of the film was carefully orchestrated. Francis Ford Coppola, an old acquaintance of director Yukol, was brought in to edit the three plus hour-long Thai version into a more palatable one of 2 hours and 22 minutes (several longer versions of the film are in circulation, like the 5-hour DVD version and a Thai TV mini-series, reportedly running at eight hours). The US theatrical distribution was handled by Sony Picture Classics and the DVD one – by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, thus this is one of the few Thai films readily available in the West today. According to Box Office Mojo, Suiyothai was released theatrically in 22 prints and made about half a million dollars; there are no data on the DVD revenues, which are probably more significant. In any case, it is clear that no direct financial recouping of the budget has been sought from the US release.

There was a significant critical buzz: Suriyothai was reviewed in a wide range of mainstream publications, like the LA Times, Premiere, International Herald Tribune, the NYT, and so on. Positive in the overall, critics described it as a ‘Cecil B. DeMille-sized epic’ of ‘Shakespearian’ character and proportions. Most reviewers, however, revealed that they found the epic too foreign and exotic, and therefore, they judged, ordinary viewers could also find it equally difficult to process. One reviewer said that Suriyothai ‘plays like one of those overblown Hollywood epics of 1950’s, but with half the powder in the keg’. Writing in The Chicago Tribune Michael Wilmington warned that the challenging spelling of lengthy Thai names is a put off as it makes it difficult for Westerners to follow the complex ‘who is who’ and hierarchy of subplots of the film. But mostly reviewers complained about the length of the film: even the cut version seemed excessive to critics (e.g. L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan), a somewhat puzzling reaction as the length of the film was fully compatible with the length of similarly-themed recent Hollywood releases. The reservations of the critics, however, seem to be counterbalanced by the overwhelmingly positive comments made by IMDb users, who mostly commented on the film as a ‘pleasant surprise’ a ‘gem’, or describe it as a ‘fascinating’, ‘opulent’, ‘dazzling visual extravaganza.’ Following the exchanges at the IMDb (which provides a lively interaction between Westerners and Thais) it appears that Suriyothai has gained its dedicated group of followers and enjoys a specific cult standing.

In an academic reaction to the film published in the Journal of Inter-Asian Cultural Studies (Suriyothai: Hybridizing Thai national identity through film; Volume 4, Issue 2 August 2003, p. 296-308), anthropologist Amporn Jirattikorn argues that the film’s construction of ‘Thai-ness’ is one that promotes a narrative of self-sufficiency and positive isolationism, thus furthering the ideology of the ability of Thailand to remain untouched by colonizing flows and to maintain sovereignty today like it has been able to do in the past.

It is an interesting take that seems to be confirmed by the fact that since the making of Suriyothai, director Yukol has continued working in the epic genre, releasing in 2006 an even more ambitious and lavish production, Naresuan, immediately followed by a sequel in 2007, again depicting events from the important 16th century period of Ayothaya’s proud independence. Reportedly, this project will be a trilogy, a project which scarce Western reviews have so far described as ‘gargantuan’. (N.B. No similar language is used in relation to Western projects of similar proportions, which are usually referred to by the more neutral and business-friendly denominator ‘franchise’ and even judged on release for their sequel potential, a case in point of which is the reception of The Golden Compass in 2007).

For the time being the lavish epics of Naresuan‘s trilogy are only released in Thailand where they have beaten all local box-office records. There is no international discussion of these films at the IMDb, only a few postings originating from viewers based in Bangkok, all unanimously praising the film. According to the evidence no international exposure whatsoever is being sought for Naresuan as it has not been entered at film markets, not shown at festivals, nor made available at DVD. Amporn Jirattikorn may be right in her view on the ideological underpinnings of self-sufficiency in these grand projects of Thailand’s history.

© Dina Iordanova
14 June 2008