- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

If there’s any lesson to be learned from “The Legend of Suriyothai” — at nearly 2 hours, it’s quite a comprehensive one — it’s this: Americans should stay out of Indochina.

OK, I’m generalizing. What I mean is that one American in particular, Francis Ford Coppola, who executive produces and “presents” this Thai movie, should rethink his continued artistic interest in the region. “Apocalypse Now,” set in Cambodia, was brilliant. It was enough.

Directed by an honest-to-goodness Thai prince, Chatri Chalerm Yukol, “Suriyothai” underwent last-minute editing surgery from Mr. Coppola, who made a botchy mess of things.

His herky-jerky snipping, nipping and tucking — with the sutures left dangling incomprehensibly — should have been grounds for a movie malpractice suit.

Unaware of Mr. Coppola’s input before seeing “Suriyothai,” I frequently found myself craning my neck to make sure the movie projector wasn’t smoking or showing any other signs of malfunction.

Technical burps are the least of “Suriyothai’s” problems, though.

“Suriyothai” is a messy, sprawling chronicle of 16th-century Thai history, a period of bloody Siamese infighting (there are more beheadings in this movie than in Robespierrean Paris), palace intrigue and border skirmishes with the Burmese.

By my unofficial count, it starts with the fourth waning moon in the year of the cat and waxes its way through the years of the snake, rat, gerbil, cockroach and lightning bug.

Don’t forget the elephants … boy, are there ever elephants in this movie. According to press notes, 160 of the gargantuan gray plodders were used during production. As beasts of battle burden, they aren’t as agile or as good-looking as horses, but they sure are formidable.

Aside from all the epochal animals, the movie actually centers, of course, on a beautiful human princess, Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi).

In the film’s opening, she’s shoved by her father into a political marriage to Prince Tien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang). In her heart, the royal gal really loves a flinty warrior named Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich), but she settles for the prince, one of many sacrifices this plaster saint makes for Ayuthaya, a corner of pre-national Thailand’s web of petty provincial kingdoms.

The romantic subplot takes about two minutes to set up, and that is that. They are star-crossed lovers — the movie says so — and if you want proof beyond cooing faces and googly eyes — say, a kiss or a hug — don’t hold your breath.

In fact, there’s very little acting in “Suriyothai,” if you take acting to mean more than stiltedly reciting magisterial dialogue and melodramatically choking on your last breath. The performances here aren’t performances, per se; they’re more like cheesy nonfiction documentary re-enactments.

Indeed, “Suriyothai’s” cast seems like a bunch of wooden marionettes, and I don’t mean just the 3,500 half-naked extras who crawl around the golden palaces (upright peasants must have been a real no-no in medieval Thailand) and constantly make an arm-twirling genuflection motion — a gesture of homage that looks an awful lot like one of John Travolta’s patented moves in “Saturday Night Fever.”

Do I speak from ignorance? No doubt. But when Francis Ford Coppola emerges from his Napa Valley compound to “present” an obscure historical legend, I need him to throw me an Occidental bone or two — a movie that’s more than an encyclopedic hash of events, something more emotionally charged than a niche-TV pop history.

Sorry, but the occasional dismemberment, er, won’t cut it. Not even the pack of spear-toting killer lesbian mercenaries. OK, they were cool, but seriously …

I walked out of “Suriyothai” knowing the bare facts of the country’s late-medieval history, but, sad to say, I didn’t know any more about it than when I walked in.

*1/2

TITLE: “The Legend of Suriyothai”

RATING: R (Graphic action violence, dismemberment; nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Produced by Kamla Yukol. Written by Mr. Yukol and Sunait Chutintaranond. Executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Kim Aubry.

RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes, in Thai with English subtitles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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