Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Bang Rajan in US theatres

Bang Rajan has now been reviewed widely by several of the top critics in the US. Among them, the Chicago Sun-Times has reviewed it:

A huge hit in Thailand, the bloody "Bang Rajan" by Thanit Jitnukul joins the genre of battle epics where the good guys are overwhelmingly outnumbered. That archetypal conflict has seen in "Troy," "King Arthur," "The Alamo" and "Black Hawk Down." Over the centuries, the weaponry may change but the heroics are universal.

Oliver Stone lends his name as a presenter to this rousing film version of a jungle legend named after a village that rebuffed mighty Burmese armies en route to Siam's capital of Ayutthaya in 1765. The plot of Bang Rajan should translate easily to American audiences, resonating with global themes of imperialist invaders and homeland defenders.

Jitnukul delivers thrilling battle scenes. Mud splatters on the lens. The invaders steer attack-elephants whose tusks drip blood. The women of Bang Rajan demand archery lessons. Fallen lovers crawl across the battlefield, fingertips almost touching before death arrives. Nationalist mythology aside, the screenplay Jitnukul co-wrote with Kongkiat Komsiri, Boontin Tuaykaew, Patikarn Petchmunee and Sittipong Mattanavee depicts the doomed characters as more than patriotic martyrs.

And the Boston Globe trashes the film, comparing it unfavorably to Suriyothai.

You can't help but admire the spirit and commitment of those villagers, or the pride that a director such as Thanit Jitnukul takes in telling their story. Just like Chatrichalerm Yukol's The Legend of Suriyothai (2001), even when it falls short, Bang Rajan is at least a work of the heart.

But where Suriyothai was all about staging elaborate battles and consequently drew thin sketches of too many confusing characters, Bang Rajan fights guerrilla style and goes for a little more emotional impact between beheadings. It's certainly the right idea, the only problem being that Jitnukul and his army of screenwriters aren't up to the dramatic mission, so you might find yourself skimming subtitles and stifling an inappropriate laugh as, say, dying lovers crawl toward one another on the battlefield. Unintentionally funnier still are moments amid the lengthy battle scenes when the director and his crew splash mud or bodily fluid up into the camera and just let it hang there on the lens, or employ the kind of fake-punch sound effects that even kung-fu flicks now consider parodies. Though the fighting generally has a sickening immediacy, its realism is undermined when corpses lie spattered in blood that looks as if it was applied by a carwash sprayer, or a severed limb rolls over the ground like a mannequin part.

Yes, Bang Rajan introduces Westerners to a slice of history worth noting, but its stirring lesson is told in a way that's too long, too brutal, and too clunky to recommend enthusiastically. That is, unless you're Oliver Stone.

The screening schedule has changed. I'd hoped to catch the film at Landmark's Tivoli Theater in St Louis, but now I"m going to miss it. The schedule can be found at the Magnolia Pictures website.

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