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Nobody likes editors. One editor who asked Henry James to make three tiny changes to a long review got this note from the author: “I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bleeding corpse.”
It’s hard to tell whether Francis Ford Coppola, who as executive producer helped cut The Legend of Suriyothai from eight hours to 142 minutes for Western attention spans, has murdered the film or just autopsied it. Thais see the original Suriyothai as their Macbeth, Birth of a Nation, and Alexander Nevsky all in one; it’s a pageant of cultural pride, not to mention Thailand’s biggest-grossing film. But Coppola and director Chatri Chalerm Yukol (Coppola’s schoolmate at UCLA film school) have edited the new version down to a memo of the original, each scene an abrupt bullet point.
Even after all the hacking, though, this Suriyothai moves about as slowly as the raw sewage in a Bangkok canal. And despite its homegrown pedigreethe principal cast is Thai, Yukol is a Thai prince, and Queen Sirikrit of Thailand herself commissioned the projectthe film now also feels quite generic, a Disneyfied set of archetypes dressed up in topknot and sarong. The princess who loves one but must marry another and is saved by her belovedthe myth has long since been entombed in toy chests across America.
Siam is a feudal mess when Suriyothai opens, in 1528, a grab bag of potentates and principalities ruled at arm’s length by Norputthanukul (Suchao Pongvilai), known even to his friends as the King of Kings. We’re told by the voice-over (which always manages to sound both plummy and alarmed) that the teen Princess Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) will “one day sacrifice herself to save her country.” For now, though, she tables her passion for Prince Thienracha (played with a blink rate of zero by Sarunyoo Wongkrchang) by entering an arranged marriage to Lord Pirenthorathep (Chatchai Plengpanich), an act that supposedly cements the bond between two royal families and brings peace to the country.
Well, that would be awfully boring. So once Norputthanukul dies, after the bad omen of a comet, Suriyothai devolves into 20 painstakingly traced years of royal assassinations, usurpations, and power consolidations, all while big bad Burma keeps cracking its knuckles across the border. But forget the bloodlinespure hemoglobin is the theme here, a dozen varieties of bloodshed that match the art direction’s rich ruby reds. A Burmese emissary gets a whole paragraph carved into his back. Severed heads fly into mud puddles or get mailed as messages, perhaps as homage to a certain Coppola epic. When a doctor tells a poisoned king halfway through the film that he’ll soon be bleeding “from all nine orifices,” your only surprise is that he might have that many.
Despite the CSI stuff, though, Suriyothai leaves you indifferent, stunned by constant crosscutting between inconsequential military maneuvers and sappy romance. Nothing builds: Suriyothai seems to grow instantly into a woman and then disappears for about 40 minutes, making way for courtesan Lady Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) to scheme deliciously against her husband in an effort to restore her own clan to the throne. Charoenpura is clearly the best of a very uneven cast: Many eyes can be seen wandering over cue cards while trying to look intense, and though Bhirombhakdi’s Suriyothai models chain mail well in the final battle, her performance leaves you wholly unprepared for the idea that her characternoble but largely passivewould have put it on in the first place.
Actually, the real stars of Suriyothai are the great, overkill modes of royal transportation. Everyone’s forever being carried about on palanquins or floating on 100-foot-long canoesand the elephants! The five years Yukol spent in preproduction are worth it just for the line “Go prepare my elephant!”
Otherwise, though, the vaunted pageantry, lushness, and overall exoticism with which Suriyothai is being marketed are just a tease. The warfare is competently shot but hardly kineticand very short on extras. The scenes at court all eventually reduce to deep bowing and walking on knees. Richard Harvey’s treacly score sounds like something Edward Elgar threw away, and Yukol resorts to Kojak-era zooms and pull-focuses in an attempt to hot-wire engagement with his characters.
The film puts Westerners in a curious and uncomfortable positionaware of their own clichéd expectations for mass-spectacle Asian films, yet disappointed that those expectations aren’t being met. Coppola has said that the movie had to be edited down because of its potentially confusing elements for viewers here: the fact that multiple actors play the same characters at different ages, for example, or that those characters change names when they rise in station. Even under Western distribution imperatives, though, these hardly seem like problems.
Though it would be going too far to accuse Coppola of cultural imperialism, the new Suriyothai is nonetheless disturbing: Sold to us as an uncompromised, indigenous reclaiming of neglected history, it’s really nothing more than another movie that aspires to the condition of its trailer. CP