-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2005 VideoVista
cast: Winai Kraibutr, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Nai Thongmen, Bin Bunluerit, and Jaran Ngamdee
director: Thanit Rajitnukul
122 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 16:9
Premier Asia DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Western audiences may be increasingly familiar with key moments in Asian history, such
as the foundation of the Qin dynasty in China, through their appearance in imported
historical epics but there still remain significant events untapped by filmmakers. The
events at Bang Rajan, Thailand in 1765, for instance have remained little known in the
west until now - a gap this new Thai epic, complete with confident, dramatic staging
as well as national acclaim, will do a lot to fill. With its deft echoes of The 300
Spartans, The Alamo as well as Braveheart, Bang Rajan was the
biggest film ever in its home country, and so impressed Oliver Stone that he introduced
it to America for wider distribution.
The director of the lambasted Alexander might well have recognised a superior
product when he saw it, for Bang Rajan is an excellent, dynamic film (a straightforward
review of which
appears elsewhere on this site), true to historical events and with a heart if its own.
Its success is a further indication of the varied resurgence of Thai films, including
the remarkable and very different Tears Of The Black Spider (aka: Fah Talai
Jone), of the same year.
Given the tense state of Thai-Burmese border relations today events are timelier than
ever, as the film describes a time when Burma invaded the country and sacked its capital.
Advancing on two fronts to secure victory, one army of 100,000 got held up at the village
of Bang Rajan where the population, with the help of a few professionals, managed to
stop the advance of the soldiers over a number of attacks and weeks. That such an occasion
continues to be source of great national pride is evident in every stage of the film,
from the meticulous research and preparation made by the filmmakers down to the comments
made on the second, special features, disc of the film that accompanies the UK release.
Bang Rajan was the result of a co-operation between people for many of whom it
was a first major project. Director and co-writer Tanit Rajitnukul for instance had not
made a film before, although on the strength of this debut he has gone on to complete
a further four films, unfortunately, none of those have apparently recaptured the success
of the current title. The UK DVD has an interview with Rajitnukul as well as shorter ones
with his three principal leads, including Bongkoj Khongmalai who plays tragic female E Sa.
It's perhaps a national characteristic, and certainly one of the participants that they
are rather self-effacing - a manner which unfortunately makes their contribution less
than enthralling especially when viewed sequentially. Quietly proud, these are people
who are aware of their achievement but hesitate selling the product in a way that one
might expect from a major studio, and where one of the male leads for instance says
that he "hopes to do good work in the future." We see the passion on the screen,
but very little off it. The most interesting parts here undoubtedly describe the preparations
leading up to the film, when 60 members of the cast were ensconced in a training village,
deliberately kept apart from modern conveniences such as mobile phones and mattresses.
As the director points out, the fearless characters in Bang Rajan form distinct
groups: whether soldiers and villagers, professionals and farmers. There is a generation
who have lost loved ones in former conflicts, the one still hoping to bear children, and
the young people who have never yet known peace. These combine to defend the homeland
against the invader, willing to face death no matter who they are. It's a patriotic cry
which has been heard and seen in films before, but in this film they still make an emotional
impact by virtue of obvious heartfelt sincerity and are relatively free of the stereotypes
common to Hollywood production. (A painful comparison can be drawn, for instance, with
The Last Samurai.)
What the DVD lacks - and perhaps its absence is another indication of the modesty of
the film's makers - is a proper 'making of' documentary, an absence felt especially hard
as there is, for obvious reasons, no director's commentary. Footage was obviously shot
during production, as tantalising elements appear here and there. Given the interesting
nature of the drama, an extended location report would have been a welcome way of opening
matters up. One highlight that is found amongst the extras however (and the saving grace,
in many ways, of the whole associated package) is an audio commentary by Bey Logan, which
goes a long way in making up for the lack of directorial analysis.
The expert Logan, who has contributed to many previous releases of Asian action cinema,
gives a characteristically informative and interesting run through the film, even though
a good deal of what he reports is at secondhand. What we are left with otherwise is partly
a series of talking heads interposed with clips from the film, which become increasingly
familiar. There's also an interesting piece entitled Echoes Of Battle, fleshing
out the cultural and historical background which never the less once or twice resembles
TV's Most Haunted, a regulation trailer and some other modest bits and bobs, a
package which remains largely unmemorable. Where one learns for instance that playing
the most interesting fighter in the film, (Nai Thongmen, whose laidback character, barely
on the edge of society, reminds one of Toshiro Mifune's in Seven Samurai) meant
spending two hours each day practicing to fight with an axe in each hand, or that the
delectable, if slight, Bongkoj Khongmalai undertook sword-fighting from scratch, then
the viewer would like to have seen the process even in the form of home movies.
These observations aside, there is no reason not to give Bang Rajan a high recommendation.
By western standards it is a modestly budgeted film, but contrives to make a little run
a long way by the hard working sincerity of its participants, a thing that shines through
the interviews. Despite the sameness of the background against which the drama is played
out, and the lack of a 'star' providing the audience its accustomed focus, the film is
a remarkable achievement - one of the most important works to spring from Thai cinema
in recent years and a new national epic in its own right.