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Bang Rajan
cast: Winai Kraibutr, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Nai Thongmen, Bin Bunluerit, and Jaran Ngamdee

director: Thanit Rajitnukul

122 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 16:9
Premier Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Western audiences may be increasingly familiar with key moments in Asian history, such as the foundation of the Qin dynasty in China, through their appearance in imported historical epics but there still remain significant events untapped by filmmakers. The events at Bang Rajan, Thailand in 1765, for instance have remained little known in the west until now - a gap this new Thai epic, complete with confident, dramatic staging as well as national acclaim, will do a lot to fill. With its deft echoes of The 300 Spartans, The Alamo as well as Braveheart, Bang Rajan was the biggest film ever in its home country, and so impressed Oliver Stone that he introduced it to America for wider distribution.

The director of the lambasted Alexander might well have recognised a superior product when he saw it, for Bang Rajan is an excellent, dynamic film (a straightforward review of which appears elsewhere on this site), true to historical events and with a heart if its own. Its success is a further indication of the varied resurgence of Thai films, including the remarkable and very different Tears Of The Black Spider (aka: Fah Talai Jone), of the same year.

Given the tense state of Thai-Burmese border relations today events are timelier than ever, as the film describes a time when Burma invaded the country and sacked its capital. Advancing on two fronts to secure victory, one army of 100,000 got held up at the village of Bang Rajan where the population, with the help of a few professionals, managed to stop the advance of the soldiers over a number of attacks and weeks. That such an occasion continues to be source of great national pride is evident in every stage of the film, from the meticulous research and preparation made by the filmmakers down to the comments made on the second, special features, disc of the film that accompanies the UK release.

Bang Rajan was the result of a co-operation between people for many of whom it was a first major project. Director and co-writer Tanit Rajitnukul for instance had not made a film before, although on the strength of this debut he has gone on to complete a further four films, unfortunately, none of those have apparently recaptured the success of the current title. The UK DVD has an interview with Rajitnukul as well as shorter ones with his three principal leads, including Bongkoj Khongmalai who plays tragic female E Sa. It's perhaps a national characteristic, and certainly one of the participants that they are rather self-effacing - a manner which unfortunately makes their contribution less than enthralling especially when viewed sequentially. Quietly proud, these are people who are aware of their achievement but hesitate selling the product in a way that one might expect from a major studio, and where one of the male leads for instance says that he "hopes to do good work in the future." We see the passion on the screen, but very little off it. The most interesting parts here undoubtedly describe the preparations leading up to the film, when 60 members of the cast were ensconced in a training village, deliberately kept apart from modern conveniences such as mobile phones and mattresses.

As the director points out, the fearless characters in Bang Rajan form distinct groups: whether soldiers and villagers, professionals and farmers. There is a generation who have lost loved ones in former conflicts, the one still hoping to bear children, and the young people who have never yet known peace. These combine to defend the homeland against the invader, willing to face death no matter who they are. It's a patriotic cry which has been heard and seen in films before, but in this film they still make an emotional impact by virtue of obvious heartfelt sincerity and are relatively free of the stereotypes common to Hollywood production. (A painful comparison can be drawn, for instance, with The Last Samurai.)

What the DVD lacks - and perhaps its absence is another indication of the modesty of the film's makers - is a proper 'making of' documentary, an absence felt especially hard as there is, for obvious reasons, no director's commentary. Footage was obviously shot during production, as tantalising elements appear here and there. Given the interesting nature of the drama, an extended location report would have been a welcome way of opening matters up. One highlight that is found amongst the extras however (and the saving grace, in many ways, of the whole associated package) is an audio commentary by Bey Logan, which goes a long way in making up for the lack of directorial analysis.

The expert Logan, who has contributed to many previous releases of Asian action cinema, gives a characteristically informative and interesting run through the film, even though a good deal of what he reports is at secondhand. What we are left with otherwise is partly a series of talking heads interposed with clips from the film, which become increasingly familiar. There's also an interesting piece entitled Echoes Of Battle, fleshing out the cultural and historical background which never the less once or twice resembles TV's Most Haunted, a regulation trailer and some other modest bits and bobs, a package which remains largely unmemorable. Where one learns for instance that playing the most interesting fighter in the film, (Nai Thongmen, whose laidback character, barely on the edge of society, reminds one of Toshiro Mifune's in Seven Samurai) meant spending two hours each day practicing to fight with an axe in each hand, or that the delectable, if slight, Bongkoj Khongmalai undertook sword-fighting from scratch, then the viewer would like to have seen the process even in the form of home movies.

These observations aside, there is no reason not to give Bang Rajan a high recommendation. By western standards it is a modestly budgeted film, but contrives to make a little run a long way by the hard working sincerity of its participants, a thing that shines through the interviews. Despite the sameness of the background against which the drama is played out, and the lack of a 'star' providing the audience its accustomed focus, the film is a remarkable achievement - one of the most important works to spring from Thai cinema in recent years and a new national epic in its own right.
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