Friday, January 26, 2007

Review: The Legend of King Naresuan Part I: Hostage of Hongsawadee

  • Directed by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Written by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol and Sunate Chutinatharanond
  • Starring Sompop Benjatikul, Pratcha Sananvatananont, Sorapong Chatree, Chatchai Plengpanich, Grace Mahadumrongkul, Jirayu La-ongmanee, Suchada Chekly
  • Released in Thai cinemas on January 18, 2007. Part II: Reclaiming Sovereignty, opens on February 15, 2007, and Part III is planned to open on December 5, 2007.
With Hostage of Hongsawadee, part one of what's now a film trilogy, The Legend of King Naresuan, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol is just getting warmed up. Still, it's hard to not judge this film too harshly, with its sometimes confusing storyline and uneven performances.

The highly anticipated followup to his 2001 epic, Suriyothai, the story picks up 15 years after the death of Queen Suriyothai. Under constant attack by Hongsawadee (Burma), the country that could be Siam has crumbled into rivalry and pettiness.

The ruler of Phitsanulok, King Thamaracha (Chatchai Plengpanich) whines when he's told that Ayutthaya won't send any troops to help fend off the Burmese hoards. Seeing no alternative, he surrenders to King Bayinnaung of Hongsawadee (a bold Sompop Benjatikul). To ensure he'll remain a loyal vassal, Thamaracha agrees to send his son, Prince Naresuan (Pratcha Sananwatananont), to Hongsawadee as a hostage.

Promising to treat the boy as if he were his own, Bayinnaung takes an immediate liking to the cheeky Naresuan, who refuses to bow to the king, saying he only shows respect to those who earn it. The boy accompanies the king on a campaign to Ayutthaya, and receives schooling in warfare while on the back of an elephant.

But the prince's real training begins in Hongsawadee, under the tutelage of an irascible staff-wielding head monk (the great Sorapong Chatree), who's Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda all rolled up into one. A flash of magic reveals his potential, when he shows how a serpent-shaped scythe can become a deadly weapon with just a flip of his staff.

Ordained in this Burmese Shaolin Temple, the prince learns hand-to-hand combat, two-fisted sword fighting and tactics of war. What kind of Buddhism is this, anyway? Well, the basic tenants are there, sort of, as the prince learns when he and his newfound friends decide to take up cock fighting as a pastime. They receive a caning or two for their transgressions, but then convince the head monk to let them fight their magnificent rooster just one more time against the bird of a rival Burmese boy prince. Later, the noble rooster is let go by the prince, who displays an ability to talk to animals. Earlier, he tells a cobra to leave one of his friends alone, and this ability played a major role in last year's animated feature, Khan Kluay.

Naresuan's childhood companions are the temple boy Bunteng, a foul-mouthed, long-haired street urchin that Naresuan rescued from a mob after he stole some food in Thai town, and a temple girl, Manechan.

While Pratcha Sananvatananont has a commanding presence – as he should, since he's playing a future king of Ayutthaya – the other child actors are only barely tolerable for their cuteness, mainly because you will want to see what they will be like when they grow up.

The best performances are by the veterans Sompop and Sorapong, who are a joy to watch in their meaty roles. Guys like these don't get leading roles in Thai cinema very much these days. Sompop's cunning character is especially interesting. He makes the Burmese king come off like the good guy, while the Siamese kings look like fools.

As with Suriyothai, there is plenty of political intrigue as Bayinnaung relentlessly attacks and looks for ways to undermine Ayutthaya. After Suriyothai's daughter is captured by Bayinnaung while on her way to become a consort to another king, the fiery princess stabs herself with a hairpin rather than become Bayinnaung's lover.

Later, Naresuan's older sister, Princess Supankulayanee (an oddly cast Grace Mahadumrongkul), is brought to Hongsawadee, ostensibly as a court dance instructor, but she really knows what's on the smooth-talking king's mind when her face is slathered in white pancake make-up and brought before him . He just wants to chat, really. Defiant in spirit like her brother, she says she'll never give her heart to Bayinnaung, and will remain fiercely loyal to her native land. She even has some Siamese soil to prove her point.

The melodrama gets pretty confusing, and it's hammered home with some explosions and epic battles. It's tiresome. The fighting roosters have more heart and soul than the men in the warfare scenes.

And when I say hammered, I do mean hammered in the literal sense as well. In one scene, a duplicitious Siamese general who betrayed Ayutthaya is rewarded by Bayinnaung with a chest full of gold and jewels. As he hugs the treasure chest, some men sidle up to him with sledges and spikes, and nail his hands to the chest. He and his burden are then thrown into the river. Thanks a lot!

Chatricharlerm is known for the messages in his films. So with King Naresuan, is there an underlying political message? Something about leaders who turn over their powers to rulers in another country? Is it really Burma that's being talked about here?

Eventually, the situation for Prince Naresuan proves untenable. The rival Burmese boy prince and his hangers-on are jealous of Naresuan and the attentions given him by Bayinnaung. Attackers are dispatched off a bridge and into a klong by the wire-assisted scissors kicks of Naresuan, who then escapes with some followers to Ayutthaya. His sister will stay behind in sacrifice.

But what of hopes for the Hongsawadee line to continue? "There is another," Bayinnaung is told by a soothsayer.

More information:
See also:
(Cross-published t Rotten Tomatoes>)