Four years in the making, and repeatedly delayed from year to year as the production dragged on and on, the third entry in director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol's Naresuan franchise finally hits the big screen this week with The Legend of King Naresuan Part III: Naval Battle (ตำนานสมเด็จพระนเรศวรมหาราชภาค 3 ตอน ยุทธนาวี, Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Maharaj Part 3: Yutthanawee).
Having proclaimed sovereignty, King Naresuan the Great (Lt. Colonel Wanchana Sawasdee) faces a new threat from a spy in his midst. The traitor's flight in a Chinese junk leads to the vaunted river battle with an armada of royal barges. Later, Naresuan clamps a sword in this teeth as he battles the Burmese.
Along with Lt. Col "Bird" Wanchana, the cast returning for this outing includes Sorapong Chatree as the wise warrior monk, "Peter" Nopachai Jayanama as Naresuan's boyhood friend Lord Rachamanu, Taksaorn Paksukcharoen as the king's companion Lady Maneechan, Chatchai Plengpanich as King Thamaracha, Grace Mahadumrongkul as the king's sister Princess Supankulayanee and Inthira Charoenpura as the warrior woman Lurkin.
Tony Jaa, at one time slated to portray a slave, does not appear in the cast. After production of Jaa's Ong-Bak 2 hit a snag, Tony was dropped from Naresuan. "Deaw" Chupong Changprung was reportedly to take Jaa's place, but I don't see any sign of him either.
"Tok" Supakorn Kitsuwon, star of such movies as Monrak Transistor and Fah Talai Jone, plays a role I think was meant for Jaa or Deaw, of a shirtless screaming dude with long scraggly hair.
The lavish, sweeping concept of the Naresuan films builds on what "Than Mui" Chatrichalerm started with his 2002 historical epic Suriyothai, which was the most expensive Thai film at the time and still holds the box-office record with earnings of 500 million baht.
With a cast of thousands, including a literal army of extras (actual Royal Thai Army soldiers) and a purpose-built studio in Kanchanaburi Province, the scale of the Naresuan films is like nothing ever attempted before in Thailand. Even Hollywood isn't making movies like this anymore – they just use CGI.
The budget for the entire franchise, which for now is planned to stand at four films, is reportedly estimated to top the 1 billion baht mark.
Some of the funding for the movies has come from the Thai government, which has been controversial. Fulfilling a promise by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to support Naresuan 3 and 4, the Culture Ministry initially planned to support the films with 100 million baht of its Strong Thailand "creative economy" fund – half the money – with the other half doled out to dozens of smaller film projects.
After indie filmmakers hollered foul, the Culture Ministry's support was reduced, mainly because the Commerce Ministry was already giving Naresuan around 300 million baht, of which the Culture Ministry said it was unaware.
Still to come is The Legend of King Naresuan Part IV: Elephant Battle, which will depict "the great Battle of Yuthahatthi", probably the last great conflict of the war-elephant era, in which Naresuan fought the Burmese crown prince. Part 4 had initially been penciled in for release around August 12, Her Majesty the Queen's birthday. But it's still being filmed and is now a contender for release on the next auspicious date on the calendar, December 5, His Majesty the King's birthday.
The Legend of King Naresuan Part III had its premiere on Friday in a royal screening for HM the Queen at the Chalermkrung Theatre. A press and VIP screening was on Monday at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.
It finally hits cinemas for the rest of us on Thursday, though I've been told that English-subtitled prints are slow in coming and probably won't start unspooling in downtown Bangkok cinemas until sometime on Saturday.
In the meantime, take a look at the trailer if you haven't seen it already.