Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Review: The King Maker

  • Directed by Lek Kitaparaporn
  • Produced by David Winters
  • Starring Gary Stretch, John Rhys-Davies, Cindy Burbridge, Yoe Hassadeevichit
  • Wide theatrical release in Thailand on October 20, 2005, with English and/or Thai-dubbed soundtrack

Everything about The King Maker, or The Rebellion of Queen Sudchan, feels borrowed.

The story is lifted straight from Suriyothai. The action scenes come from Bang Rajan. The hand-to-hand action looks like it's trying to copy any number of sources, such as Ong-Bak, Once Upon a Time in China (by way of The Musketeer) and Gladiator.

The only reason I can figure this movie has been made is because of the ambition of producer David Winters, a British child actor and veteran director and producer, to make an epic like this. And the only place an epic like this could get made is in Thailand, where armies of extras, horses, elephants and experienced movie crews can be found relatively more cheaply than anywhere else in the world.

It's something that has drawn filmmakers to Thailand since the earliest days of cinema. Merian C Cooper shot the elephant disaster film, Chang, in Thailand in 1927. Oliver Stone came here to do Alexander last year. There have been many more in between.

The six degrees of separation on The King Maker and King Kong (and Alexander) give me chills. The King Maker is based on Suriyothai, which was directed by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, who once worked for Merian Cooper. Gary Stretch, who stars in The King Maker, also was in the cast of Oliver Stone's Alexander. John Rhys-Davies also stars in The King Maker. He was also in the Lord of the Rings, which was directed by Peter Jackson, who has directed a remake of King Kong that is based on Cooper's version. It helps that the trailer for King Kong played right before The King Maker. Oh, and Chatrichalerm has visited the WETA Workshop, which does special effects for Jackson's films.

This is all tenous at best, and doesn't really mean squat, but this is a part of cinematic legend that David Winters wants to lay claim to by making The King Maker.

And it's all for nothing. But there's more.

The story opens with Portuguese mercenary Fernando de Gama (Britain's former middleweight boxing champion Stretch) drowning in the ocean after a shipwreck. He comes to, finds some flotsam to float on and washes up on an island, where he forages for food. Here is the first of bad CGI - a Siamese crocodile comes up in jungle pool and tries to eat Fernando. Crocodile-based effects in Thai films are never very good and this is no exception.

He survives the croc, only to be captured by some Arab slave traders and taken to Ayutthaya, which is oddly placed next to the ocean, even though it is several hundred kilometres inland, up the Chao Phya River. The ancient Siamese capital, by the way, is another bad CGI creation.

Released from his bonds to be put on the auction block, he promptly knocks down his Arab captors and leads them on a comic chase throughout the ancient city - one of two decent action scenes in the movie, however derivative it is.

Eventually, he's brought under control, but not before he's captured the attention of a Eurasian beauty, Maria (Miss World 1996 Cindy Burbridge), who buys him his freedom back. This sets up a stomach-churning romance that leads to a lot of stilted dialogue and wooden action.

"Why Fernando, what a dashing figure you cut in that armor."

Okay, enough of that. Maria's father is portrayed by John Rhys-Davies, one of the only good things about this movie. Turns out, Phillippe is a figure from Fernando's past that has spurred Fernando's need to become a mercenary and look for his father's killer -- none other than Phillipe.

But first there are bigger battles to be fought. Fernando and his Portuguese compatriots are pressed into the service of King Chairacha (Nirut Sirichanya), who has to go into battle against his Lanna foes. It's a multi-national taskforce, not only including Portuguese mercenaries, but also samurai warriors (which is pure fiction) -- which is based on actual Siamese history.

After a decent gory battle scene that borrows heavily on Bangrajan, Fernando is relaxing and bonds with a Thai warrior named Tong (Dom Hetrakul). They are then surprised by a band of wild sakai warriors from South Thailand, shooting poisonous darts. They distinguish themselves by saving the King and are appointed his personal bodyguards (again, pure fiction, a foreigner would not have been allowed to get so close to the King) -- also based on actual history.

Meanwhile (there's always a meanwhile), Queen Sudachan is scheming. She was a consort of the King who wangled her way into becoming queen. Her story is better told in Suriyothai and better portrayed there by Mae Charoenpura. Here, Mae's role is channelled by model Yoe Hassadeevichit. A vengeful woman, she wants to kill the king and put her lover on the throne.

Apparently, that attack by the sakai was an assassination plot. It failed, so Sudachan calls on Don Phillippe for help. Phillippe makes a deal with a scar-faced ninja (Byron Bishop, or Mr. Cindy Burbridge) to kill the king.

It's a cool idea, a bunch of black-suited ninjas stealing their way into a Siamese palace. But they are thwarted by Fernando, Tong and other Siamese troops.

So Sudachan has to resort to poisoning the king. She also must kill her own son (Fan Chan's Charlie Trairat) who would next in line for the throne, to clear the way for her boyfriend. To do her bidding, Sudachan has an African warrior wielding a spear. I tell you, this movie is weird. But not weird enough to be cool. What happened to Sudachan's rabidly loyal squad of Amazon guards?

It goes seriously downhill from there. Fernando and Tong are framed for the deaths and made to fight each other in a death duel for Sudachan and her new king's amusement. Maria is brought out and stomped on by an elephant and survives (she's holding her tummy like she has a stomachache).

One last odd thing about this movie - it was made with an English soundtrack, with even the Thai actors meticulously reciting all their lines in English. However, for the screening I checked out at a suburban Bangkok cinema, the bits where Thais were speaking to other Thais had been dubbed into Thai, which was much preferable to some of the clunky English dialogue.

So this makes The King Maker the first English-language Thai film since 1941's Kingdom of the White Elephant, made by Pridi Banomyong in a nationalistic bid to raise world consciousness against Japanese occupation of Thailand during World War II. It's another part of history that The King Maker wants desperately to be a part of.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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