Although the Wisconsin Film Festival has done a great job of exposing us to recent Thai film ' Monrak Transistor this past year, Bangkok Dangerous the year before ' most of us have learned everything we know about "Siam" from watching The King and I. Which is why, despite all its problems, The Legend of Suriyothai is still worth seeing. It may not be as entertaining as The King and I, although it certainly could have been, what with all the beheadings and poisonings and throat-slashings and other forms of palace intrigue. But at least this time we're getting Thailand as it wants to be seen. In fact, The Legend of Suriyothai, which attempts to re-create a turbulent period in Thailand's history ' a 16th-century civil war that led to an invasion by neighboring Burma ' could be said to bear the royal seal of approval. It was directed by Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol and largely funded by Queen Sirikit, who wanted to teach Thailand's youth a lesson, a history lesson.
Gliding easily between history and myth, The Legend of Suriyothai purports to tell the story of Suriyothai, a beautiful, pampered princess who loves one man but is forced, by royal-family politics, to marry another. Then, like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, she has a change of heart when her whole way of life ' i.e., aristocratic privilege ' goes up in flames. Actually, that's only one of the stories that The Legend of Suriyothai purports to tell, none of them told particularly well and all of them thrown together in a big pot and given a good stir by Chatri, who seems quite willing to sacrifice meaning for effect. (You'll need Dramamine to get through all the zooms.) To say the movie's choppy is to overpraise; it's lumpy in places, sliced to bits in others. And, as a result, we never know where we're at in the historical sequence of events, despite being constantly told by both the narrator and all the actors. I finally gave up trying to figure out what was going on and just sat back and enjoyed the scenery.
What luscious scenery! Chatri didn't exactly spend lavishly, not compared to your average Hollywood movie, anyway. But he didn't really have to, having been granted access to various palaces and royal grounds all over Thailand and having been given thousands of extras to work with, including 160 elephants. (Cecil B. De Mille himself would have popped his cork for 160 elephants.) The Legend of Suriyothai, which is essentially a series of pageants leading to and from various battles, certainly looks like an epic. But it feels like a vanity project ' the attempt by today's royal family to drape itself in the glory of yesterday's. Speaking of vanity, Queen Sirikit managed to get her own lady-in-waiting, Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, cast as Suriyothai, a bit of palace intrigue that leaves us with a leading actress who, sadly, cannot act. Not that you'd notice, given all the hullabaloo going on around her. The movie's crammed with plots and plotting, but at least none of the plotters looks remotely like Yul Brenner.