September 5, 2001
by Ron Morris (This review is of the Thai-release of the film.)
Now that the hubbub has died down, I can say it: Suriyothai
is not really a film, but a forced march through an uninvolving
history lesson. Intriguing events are presented in rapid succession
without rhyme or reason. Emotionally gripping scenes, such as the
execution of a young king, are wasted in a frantic attempt to chronicle
every historical incident possible.
The filmmakers have an obvious reverence for the characters they present, but this reverence only makes the characters more remote. No character ever seems more than an artificial cardboard cutout. And while the cast is attractive, the acting is uneven--at times naturalistic, at times broad, soap opera-style monotone.
Compare Suriyothai to Bangrajan (2000), another recent Thai historical epic. While far from perfect, Bangrajan has characters that the viewer can care about and a purposeful story that builds to a meaningful climax--elements missing in Suriyothai.
A great deal of money was spent on Suriyothai and it shows. Every frame is replete with exotic eye-popping detail, sure to intrigue non-Thais, and the entire production is sumptuously photographed. Suriyothai also breaks new ground for a Thai film with its brief glimpses of nudity and graphic beheadings. Like Cecil B. DeMille, who was able to make racier films if dealing with Biblical subjects, the makers of Suriyothai have found that crowd-pleasing nudity and violence are acceptable when dramatizing patriotic events.
If Suriyothai was the first competent Thai film in years, I would be loathe to criticize it, but in recently, many Thai films have made money and achieved critical acclaim internationally. I am curious to see the reedited version of Suriyothai that will be released to international markets (which will reportedly include a foreign narrator to explain the myriad confusing incidents and characters).
Having said all this, I'd like to also point out an interesting AsiaWeek article on the significance Suriyothai is supposed to have for the Thai viewer: A Movie to the Rescue.