September 9, 2013

Movie Review: Bang Rajan (2000)

Those of us left know it's a fight to the death. - Nai Thong-men (Bin Bunluerit)

Director: Tanit Jitnukul

Writers: Tanit Jitnukul, Kongkiat Khomsiri, Patikarn Phejmunee and Buinthin Thuaykaew

Producers: Adirek Wattaleela, Nonzee Nimibutr

Studio: Film Bangkok, Magnolia Pictures (US distribution)

Major Stars: Jaran Ngamdee, Winai Kraibutr, Theerayut Pratyabamrung, Bin Bunluerit, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Chumphorn Thepphithak, Suntharee Maila-or, Phisate Sangsuwan, Theeranit Damrongwinijchai

In 1767, the Kingdom of Burma invaded the Kingdom of Siam (now known as Thailand). The Burmese forces moved to capture the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya. North of the capital was the strategically placed village of Bang Rajan. For five months, the Burmese Army was held back by the villagers of Bang Rajan. It was the only notable resistance in Siam against the Burmese. The film Bang Rajan covers that period of resistance in a story that begins weakly with some scattershot plotting, but ends strong with an emotional and visceral final battle.

It’s understandable why the plotting is so weak early on. Tanit Jitnukul is not only trying to tell us the story of Bang Rajan but is also trying to supply backstory on all the main villagers. So we get a battle and then a flashback. We see a new character, then a flashback and then a battle. Three villagers are sent to the capital to ask for cannons to defend the village and we get a 10 minute backstory flashback. It kills the flow of the film.

Bang Rajan also suffers from some weak dialogue early on. But that may just be a function of the subtitles not getting the full meaning of the Thai dialogue. In more than one film I have seen, the subtitles do not accurately reflect the spoken dialogue. So I am willing to entertain that as a possibility.

But the last third of the film is great. The dialogue tightens up as the stakes in the film are raised. The plotting falls into line and doesn’t deviate. And there is an emotional impact as the inevitable occurs and the village falls to the Burmese forces.

That is thanks, in part, to some good characters. The couple of Nai In (Kraibutr) and E Sa (Khongmalai) are the emotional core of the film and well-acted. The drunken warrior Thong-men (Bunluerit) is a ball of drunken rage, willing to kill any Burmese he finds with a pair of handaxes. And then there is Nai Chan (Ngamdee), who is recruited to lead the village after their original leader is wounded in battle. Chan is a coldly efficient killer, driven by the memory of his dead wife and Ngamdee plays is just right. Mention should also be made of Krit Suwannapaph, who plays Commander Suki. Suki is the ruthless Burmese general who finally brings down Bang Rajan. And he is ruthless; women and children are not sacrosanct to him. There is nothing likable about Suki. Those aren't easy roles for some actors to play, so kudos to Suwannapaph for a good job

What also helps the film get stronger are some bloody, visceral battles. You see arrows piercing throats and the resulting arterial spray. The villagers fight with these wicked swords and you see plenty of their handiwork. No punches are pulled in the filming of battles fought with muskets, cannons and blades. The final battle is the best, a last-stand by the villagers where they know that they are doomed. And you care about their fate, which isn't something you'd have expected through the first half of the film. Their resignation to their destiny is matched by their desperation to avoid it.

I read up on the actual history of Bang Rajan to see how the film matched the reality. There are some deviations in the timeline; Thong-men died in a battle well before the final battle against the Burmese. Commander Suki (which may be a fictional name) beat the Siamese not through wanton destruction but by building forts along the road and refusing the fight the villagers from anywhere else. I can understand why the decision was made; watching the Burmese build forts and staying in them would be boring. And it doesn't really affect the film too much. It's not as if they show the villagers actually beating the Burmese or using machine-guns or something. We aren't talking Enemy at the Gates levels of historical inaccuracy here

So where does Bang Rajan rank on the current list? I am placing it between The Dirty Dozen and Enemy at the Gates, but it is closer to the former than the latter. Bang Rajan is simply superior to Enemy at the Gates in everything but special effects. But The Dirty Dozen is tighter in its writing and helped to define a sub-genre of war films.

I would definitely recommend buying Bang Rajan just for the fact that you don't see a lot of Thai war films out there these days. It's well-filmed and while it begins slow, it picks up speed and really hits on all cylinders over the last 30-40 minutes. You can pick it up on Amazon for a little over $13.


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