From way over here in the West, it's kind of difficult to discern what the Siamese (since 1939, the Thai) people did to piss off their Burmese neighbors so royally, but over generations their epic clashes have become the stuff of folk tale, legend, and, especially lately, Major Motion Pictures. We have Francis Ford Coppola to thank for bringing his film-school friend Chatrichalerm Yukol's The Legend of Suriyothai to our attention — a captivating study of treachery, intrigue, and heroism set in 16th-century Siam. Now Bang Rajan arrives, set a couple of centuries later, but produced about a year earlier. This time Oliver Stone is the shepherd, but the movie is still worth a look.
Bang Rajan itself is a humble village — today a tourist attraction — not far from the former Siamese capital city of Ayutthaya. In 1765 it was the site of a fierce conflict that raged for five months. Two separate Burmese armies invaded, sending 100,000 troops toward Ayutthaya from the west and 100,000 from the north. The latter army, under a merciless Burmese general named Naymeo (played here with swaggering confidence by Piset Sungsuwan), expected no significant obstacles en route to its takeover. It didn't count on a relatively small band of villagers who were ready and willing to melt down their cooking pots into makeshift cannons, to sharpen their agricultural tools into weapons.
Veteran Thai director Thanit Jitnukul (Crime King) basically arranges his version of this classic national tale in two stacks: humanity and warfare. Then he gradually topples them into one another. He's adept at delivering both, but those sensitive to graphic violence should note that he doesn't skimp on putting it all on the screen. It's chunky dismemberment stew throughout most of the film, with beheadings added for spice, served up in a broth of torture. From the first battle to the heart-rending climax, it's relentless: You will emerge feeling dirty and scarred. Jitnukul can barely wipe the mud and blood off the lens.
Fortunately, although the bloodshed frequently skews way past gratuitous, Jitnukul and his capable screenwriters and cast breathe vibrant life into their villagers and associated heroes. An entire movie could have been made about the intrepid young couple Nai In (Winai Kraibutr) and his dedicated wife, E Sa (excellent newcomer Bongkod Kongmalai). As In's archery skills (and, eventually, humility) are put to the test by the invaders and his own needy people, Sa's passionate desire to start and sustain a happy family is very gradually worn down. A moment as simple as pausing together in the coolness of the night to get a drink of water becomes extremely moving, and their expressions of love, honor, and (alas) doom prove indelible.
There's also a lot — that's a lot — of macho posturing here, and the first strong whiff of it proves pretty hilarious. Our main hero is an assassin named Nai Jan (Jaran Ngamdee), and we're introduced to him via a close-up favoring his huge, curled mustache, attended by a guttural growl from what sounds like either the Gyuto Monks or acute dyspepsia. It's very close to camp, by Western standards, and the character's surprisingly reedy voice rather undermines the intensity of his loathing for the Burmese, who killed his family. But roll with him and it's pretty exciting to witness his technique, which basically involves charging, slashing, and killing every single invader in sight. (And do note: Since Thai has no standardized English spelling, the press-approved names you're encountering here will vary somewhat from those you'll see in the subtitles, where, for instance, this hero's name is spelled Chan Nuat-Keo.)
Bang Rajan is a fully confident work and cannot be said to flounder, but it does reveal certain limitations of tone and narrative. Unlike the longer, richer Suriyothai, there's no moral ambiguity here whatsoever. Doubtless the Burmese were doing no favors for the Siamese, but for an outsider the film's bludgeoning self-righteousness — while probably very attractive to Oliver Stone — proves more than a bit heavy-handed. Were it not for the strong performances, the movie would be a done deal and wearying by the first explosion of carnage.
Fortunately, there is plenty of relatable material apart from the warfare itself. From the Thai Keira Knightley-esque fighter chick (Soontree Maila-or) to the wounded but resilient patriarch (Chumporn Taephitak) to the former-warrior-turned-town-drunk (Bin Banleurit), the mirrors held up are at once diverse and universal. The multiplex militia who've already memorized tales of Johannesburg, Normandy, and the Alamo may wish to visit Bang Rajan for a few fresh perspectives into man's inhumanity to man.