Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bang Rajan (2000)

Director: Tanit Jitnukul
Starring: Jaran Ngamdee, Winai Kraibutr, Theerayut Pratyabamrung

The story of the village of Bang Rajan is one of the most famous in Thai history, and while it's easy to say the film Bang Rajan was inspired by films like Seven Samurai, it's also easy to guess that Seven Samurai might have found some kernel of inspiration in the true story of Bang Rajan. It was a tiny rural village which, despite being grossly outmatched by Burmese forces possessed of far superior technology, numbers, and training, managed to hold out against onslaught after onslaught, costing the Burmese dearly, not to mention delivering a major blow to Burmese morale before the town finally fell. Bang Rajan the movie takes this story and treats it with an epic feel. There's very little truly original in the film, and every hoary old chestnut of this type of war movie is served up. What makes Bang Rajan fun, however, is how gung-ho it is with its elements. This is formulaic film making but in a way that is like receiving something you really want from your wish list.

Bang Rajan has everything you'd expect in a movie where sassy villagers repel superior forces: the cool and calculating leader, the young hot shot, the drunken lout who will rise Toshiro Mifune style to the heights of glory and honor in battle -- nothing you haven't seen dozens of times before. But that familiarity didn't much matter to me, because Bang Rajan is full of energy and zest, not to mention solid acting, incredible cinematography, and some truly monumental mustaches. The battles are gory, informed obviously by Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan (those two films cast long shadows still), but very effective, and for much of their running time, the director Tanit Jitnukul (who helmed the similar historical battle epics Khunsuk and Khun Pan: Legend of the Warlord) manages to refrain from employing "in the thick of it" shaky cam, allowing us to sit back and enjoy all the shouting, leaping, and general carnage.

The leading cast of men continue the modern Thai tradition of loading their films with hot guys who can actually act. Jaran Ngamdee sports a mustache that would make Rollie Fingers fall down and weep at his feet. I guess it was a fake, but the fact that Thai men ever sported mustaches this fabulous is just one example of the undying flame that enabled them to defy the Burmese army for nearly half a year. Like the other characters, he is exactly what you expect of his character, but all of them are likable. Not every film is character driven after all, and it's perfectly acceptable to present us a stock we instantly recognize, allowing us to get on with the rest of the film. As the drunken, axe-wielding Nai Thongmen, Bin Bunluerit became the crowd favorite (as is always the case with the drunken lout who rises to greatness) and took home a best acting award for that year. He proves that the Toshiro Mifune model can still be fun, exciting, and poignant even if you already know what to expect.

The fact that the film invests time in developing characters and familiarizing you with them, even within he confines of their cliches, makes the finale clash, when you know pretty much everyone has to die, all the more moving. And the scene of Jaran Ngamdee slashing his way across a lush green field littered with corpses, his majestic mustache flowing around him -- man, it's straight out of "dramatic war cinema 101," but it's still extremely effective.

I wouldn't exactly call Bang Rajan a solid historical lesson, but history and folk tales underline everything that goes into the story -- and in fact, that it is so similar to Seven Samurai and countless other war and siege films is a testament to how certain folk tales permeate all cultures, and certain traits and scenarios affect populations across varied cultures and geographies.

My only real gripe about Bang Rajan are a few ill-advised forays into CGI explosions. Placed as they are amid actual actors and sword fighting and stampeding elephants, these clumsily-executed computer effects stick out like a sore thumb. But there are only a couple of them, and that's easy to overlook in the greater scheme of thing. Bang Rajan ends up being one of my favorite things: well-executed, energetic genre formula. You know what you're going to get, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still taste delicious.

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