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Bangrajan (2000)

Bang Rajan, Legend of the Village Warriors

Directed by:

Thanit Jitnukul

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 113 minutes

US Certificate: Unrated UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: Thailand

The year is 1765. Fed up with rebellion from his subject states, the king of Burma sends two massive divisions of soldiers to march on Siam's capital Ayutthaya from two different fronts – but one of the armies is held up for five long months around the tiny rural village of Bang Rajan. There a small but determined band of farmers, aggrieved at the loss of their homes and families to Burmese brutality, takes up arms against a professional force of 100,000 enemy, repelling their advance an incredible eight times before finally Bang Rajan is razed to the ground.

Where Americans have their Alamo and Australians their Gallipoli, the Thai people measure the national character against Bang Rajan, their own proving ground for unwavering courage in the face of certain failure and death. While it has a firm basis in history, anyone undertaking to retell this tale must also remain sensitive to the hallowed space it occupies as a patriotic myth in the Thai imagination. Yet Thanit Jitnukul's millennial epic 'Bang Rajan' negotiated so smooth a path between historic realism and romantic heroism that, far from trampling over national pride, the film positively galvanised it. 'Bang Rajan' was a hugely popular success at home, breaking all box office records, and it also won considerable critical acclaim, earning for itself 11 Surasawadee Thai Film Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

Even the non-Thai viewer is bound to be impressed by the fight sequences in 'Bang Rajan'. Whether it is guerrilla skirmishing in the forests or massed mêlée in the open plains, Jitnukul keeps the action fast and furious, with tight, efficient cuts in the editing process to match all the hacking and slashing on the field. While the bravery of the villagers against impossible odds is in abundant evidence, the film in no way glorifies war, instead revealing time and again its filthy, blood-spattered futility and its harrowing effects on ordinary lives – and at a time when our contemporay media portray warfare as a sanitised, 'surgical' affair, 'Bang Rajan' does not shy from the piteous spectacle of individuals forced to the ground by the sheer number of their opponents and then shabbily dispatched like animals.

'Bang Rajan' is far from engaging, however, when it comes to characterisation and acting. The players certainly look striking, with their rippling physiques and striking hair styles – their appointed leader Chan (Jaran Ngamdee) even sports a giant handlebar moustache that makes him look as though he comes from an altogether different group of Village People. Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that without all the tonsures, topknots, tattoos and bad teeth, there would be little to distinguish these folk – true, they each have their own tragic backstory explaining what has driven them to such desperate measures of resistance, but this does not prevent them from seeming like flat sketches in a film whose production is otherwise immaculately designed and detailed. The Burmese invaders too are either faceless masses, or else sacrilegious butchers whose one-note wickedness denies the film the sort of moral complexity that great war epic requires.

The only figure to emerge with more than one dimension to his character is the drunken cynic Tong-Menn (or 'Gold-Stink'), brilliantly played by Bin Banleurit, Thailand's answer to Toshiro Mifune. It is Tong-Menn who memorably leads the final, doomed charge against the enemy, an axe brandished in either hand, galloping ferociously atop a giant-horned water buffalo – and this image, where the agricultural and the martial merge into one, encapsulates the legend of Bang Rajan and embodies cinematic sublimity at its most awe-inspiring.

It's Got: Handlebar moustaches, big-horned buffalo, vicious battles.

It Needs: Better developed characters, and better acting.

DVD Extras Disc One: Digitally remastered and restored 16x9 anamorphic; scene selection; choice of Thai DTS/Thai 5.1/English dub, with optional subtitles (English/Dutch) or SDH; full audio commentary by Premier Asia regulars Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, with keen observations on the down-and-dirty production design, occasionally marred by Logans insensitive and ignorant comments on the Thai people and language. Disc Two: Warrior Elite (12min) interview with Winai Kraibutr (who plays uxorious archer Inn); The Power of One (13min) interview with Jaran Ngamdee (who plays Chan Nuat-Kheo, Mr Handlebar Moustache) who was previously a hotel fitness instructor with no acting experience; Daughter of Courage (14min) interview with Bongkot Khongmalai (who plays Inns wife Sa) in which she declares "I felt like I really wanted to kill people who dressed in Myanmar [Burmese] clothes"; Walking Through History (41min) interview with director/co-writer Thanit Jitnukul about the history behind the legend, his extensive use of workshops for the actors, and the danger of shooting such ferocious battle sequences ("we couldnt avoid taking someone to hospital every day – once or twice a day"); Impossible Dream (24min) interview with producer Adirek Wattaleela about the films realistic look thanks to very little use of CGI, and its anti-war themes; trailer reel; Bang Rajan Re-Scored (4min) pointless featurette following composer Richard Wells in Bratislava re-recording the films score with an orchestra; Legend Reborn (4min) Thai promo including behind-the-scenes- footage and an interview with Jitnukul; Echoes of Battle (22min) unintentionally hilarious featurette which purports to tell the True Story of Bang Rajan, but in fact eschews history, instead interviewing anonymous witnesses who claim to have been healed by the supernatural powers of Bang Rajans (dead) abbott, or to have seen ghosts at the site where the final battle took place (accompanied by Blair Witch Project-inspired night footage of the forest) – there is also an interview with the owner of the water buffalo (that played the legendary beast Boon-lert. Version reviewed: Premier Asia two-disc Special Collectors Edition DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Musa, Suriyothai, The Alamo, The Seven Samurai, Zulu

Summary

The buffalo are big, the battles brutal and bloody in this gritty epic from Thailand – but unfortunately the characters are too blank to be interesting.

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