Feast for the Eyes

Story By Alongkorn Parivudhiphongs

Bangkok Post, August 12, 2001

The movie epic 'Suriyothai' is not only a long-awaited birthday gift for Her Majesty the Queen: It's Thailand's biggest, most-expensive and most heavily researched movie ever

The long wait has finally come to an end. Tonight Her Majesty the Queen will be offered a very special birthday gift indeed, Thailand's movie epic that took five years and 400 million baht to complete: Suriyothai.

Their Majesties the King and Queen will preside over the film's gala premiere. The preview at the Sala Chalerm Krung theatre will also be attended by foreign dignitaries, top brass from the military, and the creme de la creme of Thai society.

The most costly and researched Thai film ever, directed by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, tells the story of Queen Suriyothai, wife of King Maha Chakkraphat (1548-1569), who sacrificed herself in battle to save her husband during the Burmese attack on Ayutthaya in the 16th century.

Given its gigantic scale, both foreign and Thai film distributors here are juggling new releases to avoid clashing with Suriyothai, which will premiere nationwide on August 17. All screenings will be in Thai; only a few selected theatres will feature English subtitles. Ticket prices will be set at 120 to 150 baht in Bangkok to help recoup the extensive production costs.

The movie is projected to gross 300 million baht in ticket sales in Bangkok alone, with the nationwide total as high as 450 million over a run of at least two months. To better understand the historical period in which the film is set, viewers will be given a programme explaining the story and detailing the cast.

Fifty million baht has been set aside for promotional efforts. The film is being advertised on 12-by-30-metre billboards at five locations along city expressways, banners on some 400 flyovers, and at least 50 bus stops around Bangkok. Free-standing advertisements are displayed outside more than 300 cinemas around the country.

Members of the cast have been busy promoting the movie on television programmes and in interviews with magazines, newspapers and radio stations, exhibiting props, costumes and scenery used in the movie.

Its official Web site at features full details on the production in both English and Thai.

Sponsors, too, are cashing in on the movie's popularity. Siam Commercial Bank is introducing a Suriyothai-themed bank account, cheque book and ATM card, while Boon Rawd Brewery is displaying 14 major characters from the film on its beer cans. Memorabilia, from posters, T-shirts and jugs to phone cards, will hit the stands with the launch of the movie. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is looking to use edited sequences from the movie for a short documentary highlighting some of the historic sites featured in the film, using cultural advertising campaigns to attract more tourists to Thailand.

"It's something I could never have done again and I am proud of it," said the grey-haired and stubble-chinned prince and director. "It has been five years of not getting a good night's sleep-but now it's like a mountain has been removed from my heart." Than Mui, as he is known, has made a stream of critically acclaimed films over the past three decades with themes focusing on the bittersweet lives of ordinary people.

Than Mui was asked by Her Majesty the Queen to be the movie's director, and he began shooting in April 1999, after first devoting three years to research and writing the script. A team of researchers went through documents in Thailand, Laos, Burma and the Vatican as well as records of ancient travellers to old Siam.

His script is based on historical chronicles and records from the Ayutthaya period, including those by Luang Prasert and Portuguese soldier Mendez Pinto.

Historians, university professors and archaeologists provided advice on everything from the architecture of the time to palace murals, weapons and costumes, from Thai, Lanna, Mon and Khmer sources.

As is the case with most films of this genre, a great deal of research went into costume and set design to ensure accuracy. The major cast members were selected from noted stars because, said the director, there were too many characters in this complicated story. Using familiar faces would help the audience follow the story more easily.

In the lead role is lady-in-waiting ML Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, hand-picked by Her Majesty the Queen to play Queen Suriyothai.

"I'm still not sure if I'm good enough. It was really Her Majesty the Queen's wish," ML Piyapas is reported to have said. "My first thought was that I would ruin the movie. That's what I was afraid of the most. It's an honour that Her Majesty picked me, and that Than Mui thought I was okay." The major cast members include more than 50 leading actors and actresses, including Sarunyoo Wongkrachang, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Johnny Anfone, Chatchai Plengpanich, Siriwimol Mai Charoenpura, Sinjai Plengpanich and Sorapong Chatri. Burmese troops are led by Suphakit Tangthatswasd, Saharat Sangkapricha, Ronrittichai Khanket and Sombat Medhanee. Thailand's army and navy also lent the prince thousands of troops to ensure that the film would be "gigantic".

In order to give Suriyothai an international flavour, Than Mui brought in professional technicians from Europe, notably the German Igor Luther as director of photography, and veteran British composer Richard Harvey for the score. The film went through post-production at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio in San Francisco with assistance from British film editor Colin Green.

Apparently, the director aims to put the film on the international market. After a trailer shown at Cannes Film Festival this year, Suriyothai attracted Hollywood attention for overseas distribution. Foreign film distributors-Warner Brothers, Miramax, New Line Cinema and independent distributors-are interested in obtaining the rights. Prommitr Film expects the bidding to top $10 million (450 million baht).

Overseas success for Suriyothai would be a ground-breaking event for Thailand's blossoming film industry, after Satree Lek, Nang Nak and Fah Talai Jone each earned recognition from regional and international film festivals.

Like other historical films, Suriyothai stirred up debate among historians over fact and fiction. Despite the Queen Suriyothai Monument in Ayutthaya in honour of her heroic action, many questions hang over her existence-much of Thailand's history from the period is sketchy. Queen Suriyothai is given a mere three lines in the official records, which simply report there was a battle in which the king's wife was killed.

Her existence-or lack thereof-did not bother the director. As a film-maker, he said, he is allowed to use his imagination more than historians.

"It is an historical film, but it's actually my interpretation of history. I didn't make this movie to make people believe it. My aim was to make people more aware of Thai history," the director said.

During his own research, however, Than Mui discovered that Suriyothai was 35 years old when she died and that it would be a logical assumption that, as a member of the royal family, she was more than likely involved in-or a witness to-much of the power struggles of the time. This inspires the twists and turns of the plot revolving around intrigues, internecine bloodletting and backstabbing within the Thai court, before the Burmese even arrived on the scene.

The mega-budget film is a fine and invaluble insight into the life of the royal court and the way ordinary people lived during the Ayutthaya era.

"It's not only entertaining, it involves universal human struggles including love, hate, violence and betrayal." Another pending challenge is the movie's nationalistic overtones which, some fear, might offend neighbouring countries.

Than Mui, however, says he has avoided portraying the Burmese as stereotypical evil war-mongers. To do so, he worked closely with Burmese history experts to portray the Burmese in a balanced way.

"We do not show them as baddies, but as warriors and a great nation," said the director, adding that scholars from Burma had seen clips from the movie and praised it for its accuracy and spectacle.

But all in all, the making of this historical film aims to remind Thai audiences of Thai identity.

"If we can make history interesting and get people to think about Thailand's past, that would be beneficial enough," the director said.

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