Angulimala (2003) Movie Review

When people think of the hot spots of the Asian film industry, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea comes to mind. However, recent years have seen an increase in output from smaller nations in the region, such as Vietnam, which made its presence known in the late `90s with films like “Cyclo” and “Three Seasons.” More recently, Thailand has been making waves with some rather varied output. Perhaps the first Thai film to get noticeable Western attention was the Pang Brothers’ “Bangkok Dangerous,” which was really a Hong Kong action film set in Thailand. Then there were distinctive home-grown products like the outrageous “Ong Bak” and “Born To Fight”, two films that help to solidify the Thai movie industry’s reputation as a source of decent action films and a place to watch out for emerging talent.

Some quick research into the Thai film industry shows that the majority of their films are based on the country’s ancient mythology and various religious influences, and having a long history of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam provides quite a bit of material to work with. The movie “Angulimala” is based on one of those early Buddhist legends, this time about a vicious killer brought to enlightenment by Buddha. The film begins with the child Ahimsika being born to a noble Brahmin family along with bad omens that indicate Ahimsika is not predestined for a virtuous life. In an attempt to stave off the bad karma, Ahimsika’s parents send him to a renowned Hindu guru’s school. The boy grows up into a man (Nopachai Jayanama) who becomes convinced that the only path to total enlightenment is to seek out 1,000 evil people and free them of their earthly misery. He soon earns the name ‘Angulimala’, for his practice of lopping off his victims’ fingers and wearing them on a necklace.

Religion, being a somber subject in general, does not lend itself well to escapist entertainment, and scriptural accuracy translates into a dry and boring film experience and attempts to juice things up oftentimes come across as exploitative rather than pious. This was true for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and it’s also true for “Angulimala”. From what little I know of the legend of Angulimala, the filmmakers have taken great liberties with the mythology in adapting the tale into an action/adventure film. Not surprisingly, “Angulimala” was initially banned by the conservative Thai MPAA equivalent, due to what they saw as grievous misrepresentation of Buddhist scripture. After all, Angulimala was one of the first religious loony serial killers, and I suppose the Thai film board didn’t take to the film’s apparent glorification of such a figure.

The point of view from which the filmmakers approach Angulimala’s motivation is also a little troubling. During the first act, it seems that his theological inner conflict stems from a disdain for the caste system inherent in Hindu society; however, his murderous mission to achieve Dharma Core is presented as either the byproduct of delirium brought on by a cobra’s venom or trickery by a demon. In addition, Angulimala seems to change the reasoning for his rampage whenever his motivation is questioned, as if he’s constantly trying to justify his actions to himself. I suppose that, regardless of what the initial reasoning for undertaking his bloody quest, Angulimala’s later crisis of conscience shows that he had led himself astray and came to like the killing rather than the search for Dharma, as was his originally stated goal. Unfortunately the message gets lost in the increasingly large pile of bodies Angulimala leaves in his wake.

Visually, “Angulimala” is an accomplished effort, and the filmmakers make effective use of the exotic settings, from the foot of the Himalayas to the deep forests. They also play games with the lighting and fog to give the film an ethereal, dream-like air. There are also some haunting segments, such as when Angulimala is revisited by all of his victims as he pursues Buddha through a forest.

The action sequences are handled competently, with extra credit going to the Foley artists for the forceful sound effects. Dispensing with over-stylized slow-motion fisticuffs and swordplay endemic in most Asian period action fare, “Angulimala” is gritty and dirty in its approach to combat. The fighting is choreographed with an old-school flair, as warriors hack away at each other with oversized swords, arrows pierce heads and chests with satisfying squishy thunking sounds, and blood and dismembered limbs fly willy-nilly. In those respects, “Angulimala” bears more resemblance to “Conan The Barbarian” than the Japanese Samurai film “Zatoichi.” The film also features CGI special effects, but they’re used sparingly and, for the most part, appropriately.

Despite a solid preamble followed by a suitably violent middle act, “Angulimala” loses steam during the third act, when the religious overtones come back into play. Having established itself as a bloody action film, the depiction of Angulimala’s trip back from the path of evil seems contrived. Maybe the problem is that preaching never comes off well on screen, and the character’s sudden change from fierce warrior to harmless ascetic is a bit hard to swallow. The significance of some of the supporting characters is also called into question, as most of them simply disappear from the narrative with no explanation.

“Angulimala” shows potential, but attempts to inject a higher purpose into the proceedings only ends up harming the film’s entertainment value. It’s a pretty film to look at, the soundtrack is pleasingly exotic, and there are plenty of energetic action scenes to occupy the eye. Even so, “Angulimala” is simply too pious for its own good, and as such, it isn’t as fully entertaining as it should have been.

Sutape Tunnirut (director) / Sutape Tunnirut (screenplay)
CAST: Caterina Grosse, Stella Malucchi, Jayanama Nopachai, John Rattanaveroj

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