Unveiled a year later and a full half-hour shorter than the original version (“Suriyothai”) that broke box-office records in its native Thailand, Francis Ford Coppola’s significantly modified presentation, “The Legend of Suriyothai,” goes some distance — though not far enough — toward making the opulent epic accessible to international audiences. Film moves along at a faster pace, and the frequently confusing story does eventually pull together; but there’s still a lack of any strong emotional center, and the character gallery remains over-populated. The visual spectacle represents a strong selling point, but Sony Pictures Classics faces a tough task persuading audiences to wade through this dense historical chronicle. Distrib is planning a spring U.S. release.
Originally reviewed in Variety Dec. 17, 2001, the massive undertaking was directed by Thai prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, a longtime friend of Coppola’s, and made with full support of the Thai royal family, reportedly to counter young people’s poor knowledge of the country’s history. Local grosses indicate that Thai audiences had enough basic grounding to make the narrative coherent; despite Coppola’s streamlining, foreign audiences still may be somewhat bewildered.
Coppola and Kim Aubry of American Zoetrope — both of whom take exec producer credits on the retooled cut — coached Yukol through a re-edit designed to straighten the choppy story’s lines, removing a number of distracting peripheral characters.
Captions have been added for historical backgrounding, as well as for characters and locations. Coppola also added some minor new footage and rewrote subtitles to simplify things.
Original version opened with a taste of the story’s 1548 climax, in which Queen Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhhakdi) takes on Burmese invaders in northern Siam. Now, the action plays chronologically from 1528, when the adolescent princess is forced to forsake her true love, Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich), and marry Prince Tien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang). However, this melancholy romantic angle never stays sufficiently in focus to provide emotional access, getting lost in a tangle of other characters and incidents.
Film’s title is misleading, in that Suriyothai barely registers as its subject for much of the action, particularly in the long central stretch. She later resurfaces to restore the rightful monarchy, going on to meet a warrior’s death, but her absence from much of the action makes her resourcefulness and valor, not to mention physical fighting skill, seem to come almost out of nowhere.
Despite a certain overkill, especially in the later stages, Yukol’s choreographing of the bloody battle scenes and rich displays of spectacle and pageantry is undeniably impressive. Story unfolds in broad strokes, in a simple, soap-operatic style; with even more pruning to identify key events, the movie could have been far more digestible.