Thailand’s highest-grossing film until it was bested by its sequel, “King Naresuan” is a lavish historical drama with a screenplay that’s a major challenge for non-Thai auds to follow. The first chapter in royal helmer M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol’s three-part biography of the 16th-century hero is populated by a telephone book’s worth of characters and byzantine plotting around the story of the future monarch’s childhood. Released locally Jan. 18, the blockbuster is highly unlikely to play offshore, though carefully selected parts could be worked into an export-viable condensation.
Originally a single entity funded by a $20 million government grant, “Naresuan” ballooned into a two-parter, with “King Naresuan: The Reclamation of Sovereignty” shipped into cinemas while the first film was still playing. A third chapter is set for release Dec. 5, the 80th birthday of revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. At double the budget of Yukol’s previous epic, “Suriyothai” (2001) — later reworked into the Francis Ford Coppola-presented “The Legend of Suriyothai” (2003) — “Naresuan” is also popular entertainment made in the national interest of a land where royalty is treated with the utmost respect.
Through a maze of maps and voiceovers relating to the state of play in the region in 1564, it emerges that 9-year-old Prince Naresuan of Ayutthaya (roughly modern Thailand) is to be held hostage by dominant power Hongsawadee (Burma) to ensure the smaller state’s fealty. Already greeting the heads of rival kingdoms with, “I only show respect to those who deserve it,” the spirited lad (Pratcha Sananwatananont) is immediately adopted by wily Burmese ruler Buyinong (Sompob Benchanukul) as his favorite son.
Educated by wise monk Kanchong (Sorapong Chatree) and eschewing the trappings of his royal status, Naresuan finds playmates in street urchin Bunthing (Jirayu La-Ongmanee) and cute girl Maneechan (Suchada Chekly). Most accessible part of the drama is the bond formed by the odd trio, whose cheeky adventures prove much more entertaining than all the maneuverings in Burma and surrounding kingdoms.
Stodgy through non-Thai eyes — yet vital in expressing the real way in which protocols were observed — are the many lengthy scenes in which prostrate subjects listen to rulers plotting from lofty thrones in ornately decorated palaces. Theatrical thesping and an inevitably limited range of shooting options cause many of these sequences to haze out into an amorphous mass.
Infrequent battle scenes with thousands of extras dressed in eye-catching armor are excitingly staged, though the old-fashioned execution recalls “El Cid”-era epics much more than hyperkinetic modern spectacles like “300.”
Adequate perfs are overshadowed by the no-expense-spared look of the enterprise. Production design, costuming and lensing on a 700-acre purpose-built set are all deluxe. Some not-so-deluxe CGI creeps in during battle scenes.
Click here to read the review of the second film in the “King Naresuan” series.