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Bang Rajan:
The Legend Of The Village Warriors
cast: Charan Ngamdee, Chumphom Theppithak, Winai Kraibutr, Bin Bunluerit, and Bangkoj Kongmalai

director: Thanit Jitnukul
119 minutes (unrated) 2001
Netfliks DVD Region 1 rental

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Asian Films Are Go! - the 2002 New York Asian Film Festival at the Anthology Film Archives art house, featured one standout amidst the slew of offerings with contemporary settings. This noteworthy production, Bang Rajan: The Legend Of The Village Warriors, one of the most popular Thai films ever in its home country, based its story on actual 18th century historical events familiar to everyone from that already mentioned place of origin. At long last, this exciting opus gets released in the USA, albeit in limited distribution.

Bang Rajan portrays its subject in a visually stunning yet grimly realistic manner such that an apt tag line describing this picture would be the Saving Private Ryan of Thailand! Bang Rajan, also the name of the eponymous village, pays homage to this heroic settlement that resisted the Burmese armies invading Siam (as Thailand was then called) in 1765. At this time, King Man-ra, a new ruler coming to power in Burma, wished to assert his authority by subduing rebellious provinces that were supported by the Siamese government.

Therefore he split his military forces into two battalions, the goal being to capture the then Siamese capital of Ayudhya. The first army attacked from the west while the second attempted to penetrate the northern corridor but ended up defeated in that Singburi region by the fierce resistance of the inhabitants of a single village, Bang Rajan, this heroism becoming legendary and rousing the population kingdom-wide to rise up and fight the Burmese.

The film humanises these above iconic historic events by getting the audience to care about certain key characters from Bang Rajan and its beleaguered neighbours. Among these, one stands out, a man who eludes the carnage of the Burmese foes' early forays, a certain Ai Jan 'Nuad Khiew' (Charan Ngamdee) sporting an unusually large moustache that resembles a water buffalo's horns. He seethes with desperation and fury against the enemy for destroying his home village Khao Nang Buad and murdering his wife and children. Swearing revenge, Ai Jan leads surviving compatriots into the depths of the forest, sporadically harassing the Burmese troops and eventually arriving at Bang Rajan where he finds the allies he seeks. There Ai Jan teams up with the wounded elder Po Tan (Chumphom Theppithak) who passes on his leadership to him, an act that does not arouse jealousy because the younger man's fighting prowess garners so much respect. Ai Jan helps train his co-leaders of Bang Rajan: expert archer Ai In (Winai Kraibutr); adept axe-man Ai Tong Maen (Bin Bunluerit); plus four other tough male warriors; two Amazon-like women, Ai In's loving wife (Bangkoj Kongmalai) and Po Tan's daughter (Suntri Mailohoh); and a brave old revered Buddhist monk (Tirayut Prachyabumroong) who blesses everyone's endeavours.

These 11 principals organise the residents of Bang Rajan to defend themselves with swords, arrows, farm implements, what few firearms they are able to obtain (against the Burmese troops' overwhelming fire power) and anything else they can muster. The guerrilla-like villagers under Ai Jan's command, ambush the Burmese army, driving them off three times. During a brief interlude when the Burmese commander sends for reinforcements, the folk of Bang Rajan request help from the capital of Ayudhya in the form of cannons to match those of the enemy.

The relationships between the protagonists - friendships or romances where appropriate, get screen time to develop enough to evoke sympathy from the audience and to deepen the impact of what follows, for the Siamese government's response turns out to be dismayingly inadequate. Despite this, and of being vastly outnumbered, the people of Bang Rajan gird themselves for the impending climactic battle.

Under experienced director Thanit Jitnukul's skilled guidance, filmed close up to the characters and the action and from unusual camera angles (mud even splashes onto the lens once or twice), and frenetically paced, Bang Rajan the movie relentlessly portrays the horrors and heroism of pre-industrial combat where the loincloth clad, un-armoured, fiercely resistant heroes face up to fully outfitted, highly organised invaders with superior weaponry, cavalry and accurately depicted period firepower. The graphic bloodiness of the fighting grows in explicitness until the final scenes, which portray the consequences of war in a gruesomely realistic manner. All of the violence and gore, appropriate to the story and the theme of celebrating a people and a nation struggling to preserve their independence and way of life in the face of overwhelming odds, in contrast to the touching scenes showing the protagonists interacting - makes their ultimate fate all the more gut-wrenching and affecting.

Dazzling in a gritty, carefully researched, historically accurate way, with simple loincloths or sarong-like costumes for the villagers and exotic-looking armour for the Burmese soldiers plus an impressive reconstructed 18th century peasant-farming habitation in its suitable environs, Bang Rajan - explodes with energy; fast and furious action; and emotional impact thanks to the talented, appealing, charismatic cast; and gorgeous score combining symphonic sounds with traditional Thai instruments; and serves as a fitting tribute to its inspirational source. This film, and the exciting historical events it brings to life, deserves and is finally getting international distribution, wide recognition and needs audiences who can take their entertainment with minds open to new cultures, times and places and who have strong stomachs!
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