Quentin Tarantino presents "Hero." Oliver Stone presents "Bang Rajan." What's next, Penny Marshall presents the uncut "Berlin Alexanderplatz"? While it's probably considered influential in studio marketing meetings, it's hard to imagine anyone deciding to see a foreign-language film based on the endorsement of a famous (or in Stone's case, once-famous) American director. (Not that selecting a movie based solely on the whims of highly fallible film critics is any more recommended, but at least those opinions come in some sort of context that doesn't reap box-office dividends.) Stone's stamp of approval on "Bang Rajan" doesn't change the fact that this choppy, cheesy historical war epic really has only a couple of things going for it, and its biggest asset remains the heroic popular legend that inspired its making.
As those who don't know will learn in a textbook-style opening, modern Thailand was once an unsettled land of fierce power grabs by Burmese and Siamese rulers. In 1765 that struggle came to a head in the spunky little Siamese village of Bang Rajan, where residents and rebels are said to have held off more than 100,000 advancing Burmese troops for five months, thereby delaying the attackers from joining a timed assault on the Siamese capital.
You can't help but admire the spirit and commitment of those villagers, or the pride that a director such as Thanit Jitnukul takes in telling their story. Just like Chatrichalerm Yukol's "The Legend of Suriyothai" (2001), even when it falls short, "Bang Rajan" is at least a work of the heart.
But where "Suriyothai" was all about staging elaborate battles and consequently drew thin sketches of too many confusing characters, "Bang Rajan" fights guerrilla style and goes for a little more emotional impact between beheadings. It's certainly the right idea, the only problem being
that Jitnukul and his army of
screenwriters aren't up to the
dramatic mission, so you might
find yourself skimming subtitles
and stifling an inappropriate
laugh as, say, dying lovers crawl
toward one another on the battle-
field. Unintentionally funnier still are moments amid the lengthy battle scenes when the director and his crew splash mud or bodily fluid up into the camera and just let it hang there on the lens, or employ the kind of fake-punch sound effects that even kung-fu flicks now consider parodies. Though the fighting generally has a sickening immediacy, its realism is undermined when corpses lie spattered in blood that looks as if it was applied by a carwash sprayer, or a severed limb rolls over the ground like a mannequin part.
Yes, "Bang Rajan" introduces Westerners to a slice of history worth noting, but its stirring lesson is told in a way that's too long, too brutal, and too clunky to recommend enthusiastically. That is, unless you're Oliver Stone.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.