One of Thailand's most cherished military stories is brought to life with pomp and pageantry in "Bang Rajan," a wartime epic in the most flamboyant, operatic tradition of the genre.
Thai filmmaker Thanit Jitnukul goes to extraordinary and often impressive lengths to stage the legendary series of battles waged by the citizens of a Siamese village called Bang Rajan against the encroaching Burmese army in 1765. For five months, these men and women -- mostly farmers -- held off the far better armed, far better organized Burmese forces with ingenuity and breathtaking physical courage. Scholars of that era will be better at filling in the blanks left in the wake of "Bang Rajan's" focus on bloody, hand-to-hand combat and some overwrought romantic story lines. But even without deep knowledge of Thai politics and history, fans of war pictures will be impressed by Jitnukul's achievement in creating a detailed and graphic, if overheated, account of this ultimate underdog story.
In a cast of what often looks like thousands, the film's chief protagonists are a Bang Rajan villager named Nai In (Winai Kraibutr) and the jungle warrior he recruits to help the town's cause -- a fierce mustached fighting machine named Chan (Jaran Ngamdee). In has a young wife named E Sa (the lovely Bongkaj Khongmalai), and "Bang Rajan" tries to inject a note of melodrama in the story of their romance and burgeoning family.
But Jitnukul is clearly more interested in getting into the heat of battle, which he does at every opportunity, with lots of spurting, streaming and spraying blood, ritualized gestures and slow-motion flourishes. (He's particularly fond of covering Chan and his Burmese nemesis in blood that trickles down their faces in florid rivulets.) If you think things can't get bloodier, just wait. The fighting is mostly of the sword-and-ax variety until the Bang Rajan forces actually make their own cannon. As the two mismatched armies meet in a massive final battle, the scope and spectacle recall Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." But in his fetishistic obsession with the aesthetics of suffering and sacrifice, Jitnukul may be closer to the sensibility of a more recent Gibson film: "The Passion of the Thai," anyone?
Bang Rajan (127 minutes, in Thai with subtitles, at Landmark E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains scenes of graphic violence and suggested sexuality.