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The Legend of King Naresuan, Part 2
 

By Sorradithep Supachanya / 18 February 2007

 

 


The second installment of Prince Chatrichalerm Yukols historical epic trilogy The Legend of King Naresuan takes place a decade after the plump little prince of Phitsanuloke made a safe passage out of Pegu, where he had been held a hostage in part one. In the time elapsed, King Bayinnaung has died, his less competent son Nanda Bayin has ascended the throne, and Pegus subjugated kingdoms have started to revolt. By honoring the allegiance to Pegu made by his father, King Naresuan (Wanchana Sawasdee in a fine debut performance), now a tall, muscular, and (very) handsome ruler, helps Pegu fight the uprising. Only when Nanda Bayin turns against him, he severs his allegiance and launches a war to free the Thai hostages.

What follows is an immensely enjoyable action flick about war tactics and combat strategies of an underdog team that culminate in the exodus of Siamese hostages across the river in a race against the much-larger, fast-approaching Burmese army. With elephant troops, hundreds of extras, spectacular visual effects, and the eventual use of a majestic rifle briefly mentioned in part one, the final battle scene certainly looks and feels grandiose, definitely worth the reportedly 700-million-baht budget. The part in which King Naresuan escapes the exploding bridge is so riveting that it makes me clung to my seat. And the climax shot cleverly employs brief silence and slow motion that effectively augment the audiences excitement.

Much less successful are romantic rendezvous between King Naresuan and his childhood sweetheart Maneejan (Taksaorn Phaksukcharoen) and between the kings sidekick Boonting, now a hunk called Phra Ratchamanu (Noppachai Chai-ngam), and a fictional princess of a defeated kingdom (Nang Naks Inthira Charoenpura in another excellent performance). Apart from a tryst by the river and a few French kisses, the romance is never explored and viewers are forced to accept the plainly stated fact and empty emotions. But, to the filmmakers defense, romance is never meant to be the centerpiece of the story; it only serves as the peppering flavor.

What, then, is the focus of the film? I am tempted to say nationalism. King Naresuan and his associates demonstrate infallible hero qualitiessacrificing own lives to save the rest , mastering the art of war to defeat a seemingly impenetrable fortress and to defend the peoples independence, and respecting the battle rule by letting the opponents collect their dead remains and by never resorting to terrorism. In short, they come to symbolize the ideal Thais, who are, as goes a line in the Thai national anthem, peace-loving but unafraid to fight.

If nations are imagined communities as Benedict Anderson has argued, then this film certainly does its share of imagination. In one scene where King Naresuan travels incognito outside his palace walls to observe his subjects, the film romanticizes the ancient Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya almost as a utopia where inhabitants gleefully sang and danced, the economy prospered, and fish lived plentifully in the rivers and rice grew abundantly in the fields.

et, doubts surmount over The Legend of King Naresuan being merely a tool of nation building. After all, we are living in a post-Cold War twenty-first century Thailand a modern time when more and more Thais become cynics of the concept of dying for ones country. Perhaps these prominent nationalist sentiments are inseparable from any biopic about a past king whose suffix The Great has been bestowed in recognition of his military achievement. Perhaps, ignoring these nationalist sentiments would leave the audience with only the enjoyable action sequences

   

The Legend of King Naresuan, Part 1

 

By Sorradithep Supachanya

   
   
 

 

Made with a gargantuan budget and an all-star cast, Prince Chatrichalerm Yukols The Legend of King Naresuan risks repeating the mistakes of Suriyothai, his previous extravagant historical epic, of being another monotonous historical narration, heavy on the facts and light on the entertainment values. Thankfully, The Legend of King Naresuan, or at least its first installment in the trilogy, is a fairly enjoyable human story about determination and sacrifice, involving intricate relationships and identifiable characters. The films only shortcoming seems to be its constant hesitation to fully develop its many sub-plots and build the audiences emotion to the climax.

Set in the sixteenth century, the first installment focuses on Naresuans childhood years when he was a prisoner of war in the Burmese kingdom of Pegu . Its ruler, Bayinaung, has defeated the Thai kingdom of Phitsanuloke and forced it to be a vassal state. To ensure loyalty, the Burmese conqueror took nine-year-old Naresuan, son of the Phitsanuloke ruler, as hostage but also vowed to raise him as his own son.

This setup lays out an interesting relationship between Naresuan and his captor-cum-surrogate father Bayinaung (Somphop Benjathikul in an excellent performance). With diligence and wisdom, the boy shows a striking contrast with Bayinaungs own lazy and arrogant sons, enough so to make the Burmese ruler express a wish to make the Siamese hostage his successor. Bayinaung, portrayed here not as a power-hungry warmonger but as a charismatic man of high moral ground and justice, offers a similarly striking contrast with Naresuans own incompetent and allegiance-switching father. Sadly for the audience, the two leads spend too little onscreen time together and we are not afforded the chance to further our understanding and appreciation of this intricate bond any more than a few glances and short conversations.

As hostage, Naresuan is ordained as monk and spends a considerable amount of time in the temple under the tutelage of the abbot Mahathera Khanchong (the ever amazing Sorapong Chatree). Here, the film also sets up another complex relationship, this one between a mentor and a pupil. Bear in mind that the abbot who teaches combat skills to the young Naresuan is the same person who tutors Bayinaung and his sons, one of which will battle with Naresuan in the third installment. However, the film once again disappoints the audience by showing the abbot performing one or two combat tricks and dispensing advice only on cockfighting. If three hours were to be spent on the future heros childhood, seeing his early influences will undoubtedly enrich the viewing experience.

 

 

In addition to his captor and mentor, Naresuan develops a bond with his sidekick Boonting and his future wife Maneejan. Their friendship and onscreen chemistry are lovely, and their playtime and cockfighting matches constitute some of the most enjoyable scenes in the film. Pratcha Sananwatananont, who plays the young Naresuan, seems most comfortable in this mode, which comes as no surprise as Pratcha is obliged most of the time to play a child with the fate of the entire nation in his hand.

As the first installment ends with the young Naresuan escaping Pegu to prepare for an all-out war with Bayinaung to liberate Siam from Burmese suzertainty, the film again risks repeating another mistake of Suriyothai. Whereas Suriyothai emphasizes dying for the nation, which really loses relevance for the twenty-first century Thailand , the first installment of The Legend of King Naresuan directly reflects the current political situation of Thailand with a relevant message that the biggest threat to Siam is infighting. History movies that lack present-day relevance often become uninteresting documentaries. We only have to wait and see if how second and third installments will turn out.

   
   

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