Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: Kon Thai Ting Pandin (The Edge of the Empire)

  • Directed by Nirattisai Kaljareuk
  • Starring Than Thanakorn, Sara Legge, Awain Muangawan, Arnuz Lapanich, Lalisa Sontirod, Praptpadol Suwanbang, Khemchair Kamutchart, Yuenyong Opakul
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 29, 2010; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

More than three years in production, the historical epic Kon Thai Ting Pandin is intended to herald the return to live-action feature films by Kantana, a studio better known for its television dramas, the computer-animated Khan Kluay cartoon franchise and state-of-the-art facilities for film post-production and processing.

After initial photography, 95 per cent of which took place at Kantana Movie Town in Nakhon Pathom, years were spent painstakingly sweetening the film with computer-graphic effects, such as swarms of beautiful, lifelike butterflies, spurting blood and skies that rain arrows. Suburban Bangkok is transformed with digital backdrops into the mountainous southern China of more than 1,200 years ago.

The effects are stunning, and the high production values are apparent, but the movie’s grand ambitions are let down by the over-the-top performances of a cast that’s better suited to small-screen soap operas.

Set in 757, Kon Thai Ting Pandin (คนไท ทิ้งแผ่นดิน, The Edge of the Empire) delves into the legendary ancestors of Thais, the Tai people of southern China. Red shirts, yellow shirts and disunity among Thais are not a new phenomenon, we discover. Since the dawn of time, it seems, Thai people have been divided.

As the story goes, the Qin Dynasty is expanding its Han empire, forcing other races into subservience. In the initial push, six Tai tribes – the Ler, Chiangsair, Khanu, Yuro, Dtai and Thanai – were scattered to the wind. Twenty years have passed, and a new generation has arisen, proud of its ethnic roots and chafing under Han rule.

While some Han overlords are content to give the Tai people a degree of autonomy and even respect, most would rather rule with an iron fist.

Litongjia, the new administrator in Ler City, is of the latter category. He’s unhappy with the way things have been handled in the past. He imposes harsh new taxes, demands that his subjects bow to his imperious concubine-wife and orders that all weapons, even kitchen knives, be confiscated, melted down and used to make a giant cauldron to be placed in the city square. That cauldron will be filled with boiling water – and anyone who disobeys him.

Litongjia is one of the few highlights among the characters. He’s so exaggerated with his perverted sexuality and womanizing that the overwrought acting style actually suits him.
Clad in what’s essentially a silk bathrobe, Praptpadol Suwanbang sinks his teeth into the role – a bad guy with a persona more fully formed than any of the young heroes and heroines. Later, he suffers an emasculation of sorts, but can still outperform the rest of the cast, literally with one arm tied behind his back.

This makes Litongjia the most memorable of the dozens of characters. There are so many that a scorecard to keep track should be handed out with the movie tickets.

Others include the young swordsman and blacksmith Lampoon (Than Thanakorn). He’s brooding. There’s his sister Buakham, played by Sara Legge. She’s sassy. The Han military attache Libong (Awain Muangawan) is conflicted. Then there’s the guerrilla warrior Gumpawa (Arnuz Lapanich). He’s a heroic archer. And, finally, there’s Chiangsair princess Bunchawee. She’s a feisty Amazon. Played by Lalisa “Tik” Sontirod, a stuntwoman who rose to fame on the Thai Big Brother reality-TV series, she has the best fight scenes, especially when she squares off against Lampao (Khemchair Kamutchart), her duplicitous sister or stepmother or whatever she is.

The filmmakers earn credit for being willing to kill off a few of the main characters early on. Trouble is, this leads to the most excruciating scenes – of the departed fighters’ friends and family members weeping ever so melodramatically. You get to where you dread another death.

Other characters are big disappointments, such as the Chiangsair tribal leader portrayed by songs-for-life singer Yuenyong “Ad Carabao” Opakul. In the rush to streamline the story, his character development appears to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Maybe that footage will be a DVD extra or a music video to go along with the theme song he composed.

The movie is directed by Nirattisai “Ta” Kaljareuk, brother of the executive producer, Kantana chief Jareuk Kaljareuk. Ta is the industry veteran who directed “Kawao Tee Bangpleng” (“The Blackbirds of Bangpleng”) in 1994 and has since been doing TV series. He cameos as the beard-stroking Han emperor.

The screenplay by Ari Jinthapanichakal is based on a best-selling novel by Sanya Phonbhrasit, winner of the John F Kennedy Award for Literature in 1973.

Expertly capturing the sweeping, cinematic frames as director of photography is British filmmaker Paul Spurrier.

The story moves at a mercifully fast and action-filled pace. The acting might be bad, but at least the movie’s not dull.

Greed and betrayal become the law of the land as a brilliant divide-and-conquer scheme is thought up by Litongjia and put into play by the evil seductress Lampao. Without unity, the Tai people don’t stand a chance against the Han hordes.

As the movie lurches to its conclusion, the dying words of the hero urge the surviving Tai to make their way south, where there is good land and freedom.

The movie’s simple message – “united we stand, divided we fall” – might still ring true, but Thais today don’t have the same choices as their ancestors did a millennium ago. Back then it was easier for the tribes to migrate, but today there’s nowhere else to go.

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