THE LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI written and directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol, produced by Kamla Yukol, with M. L. Piyabas Bhirombakdi, Johnny Enfone and Sarunyu Wongkrachang. 142 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (July 18). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page71. Rating: NN
Commissioned by Thailand's queen Sirikit and directed by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, The Legend Of Suriyothai is nothing if not pedigreed. But the title that matters most here is "Francis Ford Coppola presents." Coppola went to UCLA film school with the director-prince and stepped in to help shape Thailand's most expensive and successful film into a suitable export epic. He and his American Zoetrope staff trimmed 40 minutes from the Thai cut. That's not always a good thing.
Even at nearly two and a half hours, this version feels choppy. It begins in 1528 as the story of the sulky Suriyothai: "Oh rules, rules, rules. I'm sick to death of rules," she pouts, then sneaks out to meet her childhood love, the warrior Piren. But royal rules force her to marry Prince Thien, and the film starts to shape up as a classic fairy-tale romance.
It's not that simple. The Legend Of Suriyothai proceeds through a whirl of beheadings, poisonings, bitchy palace intrigue, wicked Burmese invasions and armies led into battle astride stately elephants.
By the end, Suriyothai has matured from 16th-century mall girl to noble leader, conscious of the sacrifice that comes with divine right.
It's a lovely spectacle but an aggravating story. Yukol lavishes screen time on details of royal lineage that only a prince could care about. Other characters are introduced only to be whisked offscreen after a bloody, multitudinous battle. After one spectacular tracking shot out and up from the king's court, I could have sworn the story had come to an end. Then it started up again.
The Legend Of Suriyothai is a singular achievement, so if you see only one Thai historical epic this year, this is your movie.
But it's more pageant than film. I'd love to see what Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol could do with just three characters and a handful of sets. Then we'd know if he can actually make a movie.