Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Review: The Legend of King Naresuan Part II: Reclamation of Sovereignty

  • Directed by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Wanchana Sawasdee, Nopachai Chaiyanama, Taksaorn Paksukcharern, Intira "Sai" Charoenpura
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on February 15, 2007
So many questions. Did armies in King Naresuan’s time have elaborate armour, like they do in The Legend of King Naresuan? Did the monarch really have a three-metre-long sniper rifle? Did the Rock, Paper, Scissors game exist in 1577?

Historians may debate these questions, but really, the answer is simply: Who cares? It’s just cool, and that’s all that matters.

With The Legend of King Naresuan Part II: Reclamation of Sovereignty, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol has delivered a tightly paced, fast-moving, action-packed war film.

Like the best of Thai cinema, Naresuan II has a bit of everything to please the masses. Of course, it has action – loads of it, with epic battle scenes and hand-to-hand combat. There is bold romance and even some comedy.

The comedy is where Rock, Paper, Scissors comes in, when a couple of young, bumbling lords arrive at Naresuan’s castle in Phitsanulok. Alighting from their horses at the same time, they argue over who should go first, based on whose city is more important. They can’t decide, so the apparently ancient game makes the decision for them.

Trouble is, neither knows what Naresuan looks like. They’ve heard he’s the "Black Prince", and among the fighters seated on the palace grounds, watching some swordsman spar is a resplendently turbaned African warrior. So of course, the young lords bow to him first. Pretty soon, the real Naresuan (Capt Wanchana Sawasdee) is revealed.

All grown up, Naresuan and his right-hand man, the temple boy Boonting, rechristened Lord Rachamanu (Nopachai Chaiyanama), have attracted a following with their formidable military and martial arts skills. Along with the African fighter, there’s also a samurai warrior (Yano Kasuki) in Naresuan’s army.

Naresuan needs all the help he can get, because in Burma, King Bayinnaung (Sompop Benjatikul) has died, leaving the Hongsawadee kingdom in the hands of his mean-spirited son, King Nanthabureng. Without the wise, guiding hand of Bayinnaung, the throne’s grip on the ever-rebellious states is tenuous at best.

Naresuan’s father, King Thamaracha (Chatchai Plengpanich), believes he should go to Hongsawadee to pay respects. But Naresuan, having been raised in Burma as a hostage under Bayinnaung (see Part I), thinks of the dead monarch as his second father, and convinces his Thamaracha to let him go. There, he is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Maneechan, who has grown into a beautiful woman (Taksaorn Paksukcharern), as well as the wise Yoda of a monk, Khan Shong (Sorapong Chatree), who taught him martial arts.

All the kingdoms have shown up for the funeral, and more importantly to show respect to Nanthabureng – all except one, the hilltribe state of Khang. So Naresuan is ordered to lead one of three armies to attack Khang, which is a stronghold that cannot be approached without heavy casualties. In a battle scene that recalls the Helm’s Deep scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the first two armies try in vain, and end up decimated and full of arrows. Naresuan sizes up the situation, and finds a weakness in the Khang Death Star defences.

Overwhelmed by Naresuan’s troops, the Khang tribe surrenders and is imprisoned. During the fight, the tribe’s military leader, Princess Lurkin (Intira "Sai" Charoenpura from Nang Nak), captures the eye of Boonting. Handy with a bow and arrow, as well as an axe, Intira’s fireball of princess is a most welcome character, even if she does eventually succumb to Boonting’s repeated stealing of kisses between sword strokes. She’s like Star Wars Princess Leia or Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the fighting skills of both Legolas and Gimli from The Lord of the Rings. The bonus is, she has no facial hair and is not Orlando Bloom.

Meanwhile, Nanthabureng is headed off to attack another rebel kingdom, leaving his even meaner-spirited son, Prince Upparaja (Napatsakorn Mitraim) in charge. This guy, and his buddy – the eye-liner duo – plot Naresuan’s demise, laughing and cackling as they scheme. They are hilarious, one-dimensional villains. All they need to do is tie Naresuan to some railroad tracks, if there were such things in 16th century Southeast Asia.

Upparaja even sends a tribe of Naga headhunters to attack Naresuan, which makes for some interestingly bloody hand-to-hand scenes. But the result of all Upparaja’s plotting only drives other kingdoms to side with Naresuan. The prince’s benevolence and wisdom serves him well. A flashback to his childhood reveals a selfless act that proves crucial to his victory in this episode. Along with this message is one of loyalty to friends and family, with the prince risking all to rush back across the battle lines to save his friend Boonting.

Another big battle scene features fireballs rolling down cliffs, a red-painted elephant and a treacherous river crossing. Finally, the big rifle that’s in all the movie ads comes into play. The weapon was first spotted in Part I, with the boy prince sneaking into a temple chamber to peek at the gun. Now, Naresuan is deemed ready by the monk Khang Shong to use it.

It takes three men to support Naresuan’s firing of the weapon – one to hold the long barrel, another to load it and a third to tamp down the load. But it’s worth all the effort – a shot that reaches across a river and at same time signifies Siamese independence.

At the end, the question remains, can Chatrichalerm keep up the momentum for Part III of his trilogy? It’s scheduled for release on December 5 in celebration of His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday.

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(Cross-published at Rotten Tomaotes)

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tony Jaa asks: Are you plus?

Tony Jaa is appearing Mitsubishi truck ads. They played one before Babel at Major Cineplex Sukhumvit. It starts out with him looking like he's going to beat the truck up. Then he dances around and flies over it, and then he actually gets in and drives the thing.

Coincidentally, one of the bus-stop ads is across the road from Major Sukhumvit. There's also a humongous billboard of him on the Rama IX expressway, on the way out to Suwannapoom Airport.

And incidentally, the Tony Jaa commercial wasn't the best of the commercials shown before the film - it was a spot involving a muay Thai fighter going through his pre-fight ritual, in which his trainer is blowing on him to imbue some sacred powers on his fighter. But the trainer's breath is so bad, the fighter is knocked out before he gets in the ring. The ad is for Salz toothpaste.

In Thailand the movie-theater commercials are often better than the films themselves. They took my mind off the anxiety over whether Babel would have English and Thai subtitles for the non-English dialogue. Often, the "foreign language" films in wide release in Thailand only have Thai subtitles. I'm pleased to report that everything is translated in both languages.

And in other Tony Jaa news, there was talk back in 2005 that he'd had some cosmetic surgery done to sharpen his jawline. When questioned about it, Tony admitted he'd had some work done -- he had his wisdom teeth removed. This is according to a Thai news report, translated by my girlfriend.

Anyhow, here's hoping Are you plus? becomes the new catchphrase of the year.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)