Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Bang Rajan 2

  • Directed by Thanit Jitnukul
  • Starring Chatchai Plengpanich, Paradorn Srichaphan
  • Released in Thai cinemas on March 25, 2010; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

A decade after the original hit that was among the first to make Thai film an international brand name, Bang Rajan 2 (บางระจัน ๒)recalls a only bit of 2000's eye-poppingly ferocious fighting spirit. Though it's 10 years later, director Thanit Jitnukul, sets this sequel two years after the first film and seeks to expand the scope of the storytelling, which not only pits Siamese against the Burmese but Siamese against Siamese.

Thanit plunges right into the action, offering an exciting battle sequence that is replete with clanging swords, the thwack of arrows, the crack of sharpshooters' muskets and the spraying of CGI blood. Mowing down the Burmese are the Yantric Warriors, a group of shirtless, tattooed guerrillas who have survived by holing up in a mountain village. They strike out to forage for food, running and gunning along the way.

The opening sequence is just a tease. After the initial hostilities cease, the movie settles in to an eyelid-weighting rhythm of characters sitting around in camp, chewing the fat. They talk about what they're going to do after the war. Young men pursue demure, eye-batting young ladies. Some plot points are repeated again and again while more interesting stories are not as aggressively pursued.

In the first film, the small farming village of Bang Rajan put up a fight against a column of Burmese invaders, delaying a two-prong assault on the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya.

With Bang Rajan wiped out, Ayutthaya has fallen. The year is 1767. Burmese oppression is the law of the land, with the Burmese armies bringing back plundered Buddha statues and columns of captives, bound in square bamboo collars.

The leader of the Yantric Warriors is Nai Man, played by tennis star Paradorn Srichaphan in his film debut. The former Wimbledon contender's athletic build makes him a natural for the action scenes, in which he trades in his racket for a pair of swords and uses a broad backhand to lop off the appendages of his enemies. Dramatically, Paradorn is pretty stiff, which suits his stern and stoic character, who is weighed down by the pressures of providing for and protecting the village and the ever-growing numbers of Burmese captives he's freed and brought home.

The Yantric Warriors' village is home to the only survivor of Bang Rajan, the rogue Buddhist monk Thammachot, again played by Theerayut Pratyabamrung. His spiritual guidance continues to inspire young men to act bravely. He blesses the warriors before battles and bits of cloth from his old robes are worn as armbands by the fighters, same as in the first film. This is the yantric cloth that gives the warriors their name.

The monk's reputation as a spiritual leader has made him a wanted man, with a Burmese general ordering a hit squad to find Thammachot. The yantric cloth might not actually stop a sword from slicing through a man's neck, but it does make its wearer into a believer in something other than fear.

Meanwhile, there are Siamese troops in the field. Cut off from Ayutthaya, uniforms faded and torn, the platoon is led by Phraya Singh (Chatchai Plengpanich), whose helmet is cracked and has a broken brim laced together with string. It's an uneasy crown on a weary head. They come under attack, but, in the second decent battle scene of the film, are aided by the Yantric Warriors.

The Siamese troops return with the warriors to the village, setting up the conflict between the duty-bound Siamese government soldiers who want to confront the Burmese in a head-on battle and the villagers who want to continue their game of survival, evasion and escape.

The dialog along these lines becomes tiresome as allusions are made to Thailand's current political conflict of the urban yellow-shirt elite establishment (represented by the Siamese soldiers) and the rural red-shirt populist masses (the Yantric village warriors).

Thais should love Thais is the logic, and all other nationalities be damned seems to be the extension of that reasoning.

Far more interesting conflicts and personalities are found outside the Yantric village in the camps of the Burmese. Among the characters not fleshed out enough is a man among the captive Siamese who chooses to cooperate by becoming a trusty for the prisoners. While wrestling with his conscience, he urges the others not to fight so they'll get better treatment and survive.

A young captive woman is brought into the harem of the Burmese warlord, who has his entire opulent bed with at least four women borne aloft in a palanquin carried by slaves. She's insulted and belittled and at one point raped by a junior officer on orders from the warlord. Pushed over the edge, the feisty girl eventually does her part in the battle for Siamese freedom.

This is during the build up to the final battle, in which a towering Buddha statue plundered from Ayutthaya and being dragged by slaves tumbles off a cliff into a river. It is fished out by the Yantrics and Siamese soldiers, working together at last.

Despite the dragging dialog and wooden performances here and there, Bang Rajan 2 is still noteworthy for being the most ambitious project yet by Phranakorn Film, which takes over the franchise from the now-shuttered Film Bangkok. Phranakorn, a studio that has built up its bankroll on rural comedies and ghost movies, shows that spraying CGI blood can go a long way. The fall of the giant Buddha is a creation on a digital backlot, but it looks okay.

There's one final, desperate charge, with the soldiers and villagers, women included, rushing to their glorious doom. Here, a few "guest stars" pop up to fight alongside them -- Winai Kraibutr, Jaran Ngamdee and Bin Binluert from the first film. They are spirits. Winai's brave swordsman watches Paradorn's back, Jaran -- the only decent mustache in the whole movie -- aids his counterpart, and Bin, the axe-wielding village drunk, again rides a buffalo to encourage the axe-wielding heavyset character in the new movie.

Chatchai's open mouth yelling, the camera zooms in and it fades to black and an anti-climax.

What? Did you think it would end another way?

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