Movie-goers in Thailand this weekend are flocking to see a new film about a legendary queen who reigned during a tumultuous time nearly 500 years ago. The three-hour film, said to be the most expensive production in Thai history, is designed to foster greater appreciation for Thai history and culture. But it is also good entertainment.
The epic film, Suriyothai, opened this weekend with many showings already sold out. The long-awaited film tells the story of love, palace intrigue, betrayal and war, all set against a turbulent time in the 1500s when the land known as Siam was a mosaic of fiefdoms ruled by sometimes brutal and rival kings, princes and royal dynasties.
The film focuses on the legend of Queen Suriyothai who, while defending the ancient capital of Ayothaya from a Burmese invasion, spurred her elephant to take a blow meant for her husband, the king, and was killed. The film uses rich sound and color to depict the intrigue and infighting that characterized the monarchy during that time.
The film shows the defense strategy of the generals as the troubled kingdom comes under attack from a powerful neighbor. And for the first time it shows the influence of the queen and other female members of the court on military and political matters.
The epic battle scenes used herds of elephants and horses and thousands of actors, using period weapons. They graphically depict the brutality of hand-to-hand combat and the punishment meted out to traitors. The scenes also show the influence of modern weapons that were coming into use with the arrival of troops from the colonial powers.
The film took seven years to make and cost nearly $10 million, 20 times the cost of the average Thai film.
Director Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol says he researched the film for three years, telling VOA his greatest challenge was to make it as historically accurate as possible. "History has no hard and fast rules," he said. "It depends on the interpretation of the people who read it. And, as director, I read the chronicles and the history books and I had to interpret it the way I see it. And this is the hardest part."
Prince Chatrichalerm says the period is interesting because it is a time of change, showing the beginning of western influence and the first moves toward the unification of Siam.
A new book on Queen Suriyothai has also been published. Its author, Lady Bussaya Snidvongs, says the general public here knows well the story of Queen Suriyothai but little of the background against which it took place. "Even though we knew about the heroic act of our queen, of the very movement that she just pushed her elephant forward to receive the blow in place of her husband, the king. But not so many people would understand the complicated intrigue of the royal palace of that period," Lady Bussaya Snidvongs said.
The idea for the film came from Thailand's Queen Sirikit, who wanted to encourage a greater knowledge of Thai history.
Director Prince Chatrichalerm says he hopes the film appeals to young Thais in particular. "The aim of making this film," he said, "is to make the people understand what our history is all about. To try to make the history interesting for the younger generation which is beginning to forget about our history."
Critics note the film also carries a subtle message on the dangers that internal disputes can present to national unity.
The film is in Thai with English subtitles. Promoters hope to release it soon in the United States and Europe.
They hope that Suriyothai will also give foreign audiences a taste of traditional Thai culture and a better understanding of the roots of modern Thailand's national pride.