Sunday, August 15, 2010

King of the White Elephant rides again in nationwide screenings on Peace Day

The King of the White Elephant (พระเจ้าช้างเผือก, Prajao Changpeuk), a 1941 historical battle epic, will be shown all across Thailand on Monday, August 16 – Thai Peace Day – in simultaneous screenings, all starting at 6pm, right after the National Anthem.

The movie was written and produced by statesman Pridi Banomyong in the months leading up to the December 8, 1941, Japanese invasion of Thailand.

It's actually an anti-war movie, and, uniquely, it's an English-language film, and it aimed to voice the pacificist stance of Pridi and others opposed the government of Field Marshal Pibun Songkram.

After the Japanese invasion, Pibun made Thailand an Axis ally and declared war against Britain and the United States. Pridi helped organize the Free Thai resistance movement.

August 16, 1945, the day after the Japanese surrendered, was declared Peace Day in Thailand.

The screening of King of the White Elephant is part of a project organized by the Pridi Banomyong Institute, the Thai Film Archive and the Thai Film Foundation.

The film will be shown in 76 provinces, mostly on DVD at universities, but in Bangkok, it will unspool in 35mm in an outdoor screening at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. Check the Facebook event page for more details (in Thai).

The historically significant film was almost lost, but a 16mm copy was recovered from the U.S. Library of Congress. It was restored through the efforts of Technicolor and the Thomson Foundation, along with a 1962 drama, The Boat House (Ruen Pae).

The restored 35mm print of The King of the White Elephant was presented at the first Phuket Film Festival in 2007.

Kong Rithdee, writing in the Bangkok Post, has more about the project, and he talked to Pridi's daughter, Dusadee Banomyong:

"Father foresaw that when Germany invaded Poland, another World War was inevitable," says Dusadee. "He wrote The King of the White Elephant and made it into a movie – an English-language movie – with the aim of showing the world that Siamese people love peace, that the conflicts in war are between kings or heads of state, but not between the people."

In the film, which alludes to the ancient rivalry between Siam and Burma, the King of Ayodhaya battles the King of Honsa in an earth-trembling sequence of elephant marches still unmatched in terms of cinematic audacity by any other films. Though Honsa is defeated at the end, the philosophy the film expounds concerns forgiveness, patience and respect for your enemies – as the King of Ayodha shows that he can rise above the conflict and assures the safe passage home for the defeated army.

In the frying pan of current Thai politics, peace has been cooked, claimed, possessed, even exploited and abused. The King of the White Elephant discusses the possibility of peace in the classical yet never naive sense. It doesn't dismiss the spectre of conflict, but it doesn't hammer home the point of chest-thumping patriotism, even against a neighbouring country with a history of antagonism. Rather, the film has power because of its belief in humanism, in the ability of leaders to go beyond the obvious and the crudeness of "victory" to something more morally luminous.

The screening is part of celebrations of the 110th anniversary of Pridi's birth.

Among other activities is the Thai Film Foundation's competition of documentary films based on Pridi's life and work, and the six finalist films will be shown at the upcoming 14th Short Film & Video Festival.

Update: The DVD of King of the White Elephant is available from the Thai Film Foundation. It can be purchased at Thai Film Foundation events like the Thai Short Film & Video Festival at the Thai Film Archive.

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