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While originally made in 2000, the Thai war epic “Bang Rajan” didn’t get much exposure outside of Asia despite being the most successful film in Thai history at the time. That is, until maverick U.S. director Oliver Stone (“Natural Born Killers”) championed its distribution in 2004. The movie tells the tale of a legendary, but ill-fated skirmish between invading Burmese hordes and the small Thai farming village of Bang Rajan in 1765. Despite being outnumbered 100 to 1, the scrappy villagers manage to hold off repeated attacks from the significantly better armed Burmese army for nearly 8 months. A watershed moment in Thai history, the incident is still used today as a patriotic rallying point by Thais.
Director Thanit Jitnukul’s film covers similar themes as “The Legend Of Suriyothai,” but whereas that film was more interested in the political machinations of Thailand’s struggle against Burma, “Bang Rajan” is all about the action. Jitnukul sets the tone immediately, opening the film with a Burmese military trumpeter getting shot through his instrument by a Thai sharpshooter. The bloody opening salvo leads to a brutal pitched battle between the loincloth clad villagers and the heavily armed Burmese.
Hiding in muddy ponds and swinging down from trees, the villagers manage to beat back the Burmese, but not before the village elder Taen (Suntharee Maila-or) is seriously wounded. No longer able to lead his warriors into battle, Taen sends the village’s best warrior, Inn (Winai Kraibutr), to recruit a notorious vigilante named Chan (Jaran Ngamdee), a rebel warrior with a Groucho Marx moustache, so that he can take over as leader. Steeled by Chan’s leadership, the villagers stage more daring campaigns, repeatedly frustrating and stymieing the Burmese army’s progress into Thailand.
The film is constructed in similar fashion to Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” but presents itself more like “Braveheart.” The battle sequences are the highlights of the film, and are staged with disorganized vigor, as if the director told the actors to actually attack each other and let the bodies fall where they may. While this style doesn’t offer the technical precision of a Hollywood production, it does lend a gritty realism to the combat.
“Bang Rajan” also pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the brutality of medieval warfare. The Foley artists work overtime, giving every impact between steel and flesh a sickeningly juicy thwack, while actors and stuntmen earn their pay convincingly as they portray the physicality of hand-to-hand combat. The battles are filmed with an ‘in-your-face’ directness, the camera lens often getting splashed with mud as bodies are tossed to and fro. The filmmakers even take time to come up with iconic shots, such as the village drunk, Tong Menn (Bin Bunluerit), wading into battle through the morning mist on the back of a huge, obnoxiously large horned water buffalo, all the while swinging two equally large battle axes.
Surprisingly, and despite the brutality of it all, the battles are fairly bloodless till the very end, when director Jitnukul opens the floodgates with impalements, dismemberments and bludgeonings galore. The period details are also nice, and while not quite as extravagant as “Suriyothai,” from the simple jungle village and its loincloth-clad inhabitants to the comparatively opulent Burmese military encampments and their ornate battle armor, “Bang Rajan” was obviously put together with a great deal of care. The attention to detail extends to the characters, most of who are festooned with wacky, individualized hairstyles, wild body art and betel nut-rotted teeth.
An overly stereotypical, but nevertheless rousing patriotic epic, “Bang Rajan” is not a subtle film by any stretch. For the most part the characters are strongly drawn, but their range runs the gamut of war movie cliché we’ve seen many times before. There is the itinerant drunkard with a tragic past, the reluctant hero who struggles with his confidence, and the fierce family man who tries his best to prevent his familial concerns from interfering with his duties on the battlefield. And as we get closer to the end, director Jitnukul lays the melodrama on thick, complete with dying lovers crawling towards each other on the battlefield, as well as a “Hero”-esque epilogue.
Fortunately the gory battles, strong characters and rousing soundtrack do manage to keep the melodrama from degrading into schmaltz. As a result, “Bang Rajan”, by any standards, is an evocatively filmed epic, packed to the gills with equal parts vicious, blood-soaked combat and earnest emotion.
Tanit Jitnukul (director) / Tanit Jitnukul, Kongkiat Khomsiri, Patikarn Phejmunee, Buinthin Thuaykaew (screenplay)
CAST: Jaran Ngamdee …. Nai Jan
Winai Kraibutr …. Nai In
Bin Bunluerit …. Nai Thongmen
Bongkoj Khongmalai …. E Sa
Chumphorn Thepphithak …. Nai Than