Still photo from Naresuan, a film by MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, released on December 5, 2007.
Friday, July 14, 2006, Bangkok Post Real Time
After 20 months of shooting, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol is confident that 'The Legend of King Naresuan' will grace the screen on schedule at the end of this year.
The prince says he has a heart condition. He says it twice during the interview. "But the film will be finished by the end of the year," he assures us as he cuts short our chat. "Don't worry, it will be."
Hospitalised shortly after participating in the week-long celebrations of the 60th anniversary of His Majesty's accession to the throne last month, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol has regained his steady gait that belies any decline in his physical health. His heart may suffer a complication, but at least it remains fixed in the right place as the filmmaker continues to roll up his sleeves and suns himself into a respectable tan on the Kanchanaburi set of his new movie, The Legend of King Naresuan. Determined to wrap things up and keep to the film's December 5 release date, Prince Chatri, better known as Than Mui, is engineering a historical pomp that's likely to surpass the grandeur of the 2001 phenomenon known as Suriyothai.
"Don't ask me how long Naresuan has been in production. I don't care to remember such trivial information," he says. Nobody seems to remember the exact moment when Than Mui, 63, started rolling the cameras either - it was 20 months ago at least. And indeed, time seems a trivial matter considering that the director spent four legendary years perfecting the lush gargantuanism of Suriyothai and that he had announced his plan to make Naresuan early in 2004.
His confidence that the film will come out later this year should stir some excitement after the local press, as well as the public, seemed to have lost interest due to production delays and ambiguity surrounding the project. Earlier this year during the Bangkok International Film Festival, a fortress was erected and actors dressed in 16th-century armour patrolled the 6th floor of Siam Paragon to whip up the buzz. Then at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Naresuan occupied a beachfront pavilion that attracted a number of foreign visitors.
All this promo blitz has been designed to sustain the momentum while shooting continues like a very long engagement. But there will be no better guarantee that enthusiasm will grip the air than a fixed release date for the film, budgeted at over 500 million baht, that will take its place as the most expensive ever made in Thailand.
"If you think Suriyothai was big, this one will blow you away," says Kittikorn Leosirikul, a director who assists Than Mui on the set of The Legend of King Naresuan. "Everything is on a bigger scale this time - more soldiers, more elephants, more sets. It is a difficult shoot, but I think it will come out very good."
It's possible to consider Naresuan a sequel to Suriyothai - they're two continuous chapters of Siamese history - though MC Chatrichalerm has a definite vision of how he won't recycle his sets and make the same movie twice. "Suriyothai concerns palace intrigue. Above all it's a drama," he explains. "But Naresuan is more of a war film. It's about the fight for independence. The tones of the two movies will be totally different."
With the spectacle of majestic elephant duels guaranteed, The Legend of King Naresuan recounts the critical episodes of Ayutthayan history wrought with mythic significance and almost-Biblical allusions. After the battle known as the War of the White Elephants in 1564, King Burengnong of Burma asks Ayutthaya to surrender the nine-year-old Prince Naresuan as a hostage (in the film, newcomer Capt Wanchana Sawasdee plays Naresuan). The young prince is shipped off to live in the Burmese capital and watches his city fall under Burmese control in 1569. Naresuan grows up in the Hongsa court with the grandson of King Burengnong, where fate charts their destinies to become arch-rivals, just like when Moses turned against the Egyptian prince with whom he grew up.
When King Burengnong dies, the vassal cities that have fallen under his rule start a campaign of resistance. Prince Naresuan is ordered by the new Burmese king to command an army to quell the insurgencies. But the prince takes this opportunity to declare the independence of his homeland by performing the historic gesture of pouring water on the ground and announcing that Ayutthaya is free.
Than Mui's movie will feature key historical moments that all Thai students have read in their textbooks - from the cockfighting match between Naresuan and a Burmese prince, which upon his victory Naresuan says metaphorically to his Burmese captors "we can bet for a country if you want"; to the phra sang daab kaab kai episode, when King Naresuan climbs the Burmese city wall clutching a sword in his mouth; and to the battle with Phraya Kriang and Phraya Kang near the Satong river as King Naresuan prepares to declare independence.
"I'm confident that the film will be finished in time because all the battle scenes have been shot," says Than Mui. "What's left to be done is the interior scenes of the Burmese palace. Only a few actors are required in each scene, so it won't take us as much time as when we did the set pieces with thousands of extras."
The difficulty lies not only in the actual production. Making a historical movie invariably prompts questions of accuracy, and making a historical movie that concerns the rivalry and antagonism against neighbouring countries risks provoking sensitive points. The Burmese, obviously, have long been treated as the default enemy in Thai cinema; our history and collective perception mean they can be easily cast as the ready-made villains - Thai audiences have been programmed to mentally accept that as a fact.
The issue is more pointed considering the recent follies of Thai films such as Ghost Game, which insensitively exploited the Khmer Rouge genocide as a pretext of its plot, and Mak Te, a football comedy that drew such heavy criticism from the Laotian ambassador that its release has been postponed indefinitely.
"When we're making a film based on history, we have to ask ourselves 'whose history?'," says Than Mui. "In researching for Naresuan, I rely mainly on the account of Crown Prince Utumporn, who went to live in Burma 150 years after the time of King Naresuan. He interviewed a lot of people and wrote a historical chapter in Burmese. I had a Burmese professor translate it for me, and we cross-checked it with other versions of history.
"We can't approach the story of King Naresuan with a sense of Thai nationalism, because there was no concept of a unified country in those days. Various cities made up the region in the 16th century, and King Burengnong of Burma conquered all these city-states under his wing. Films like Ghost Game or Mak Te might have provoked some reaction because they portrayed neighbouring countries as inferior to us. But in Naresuan, I portray Burma as a superior place to Ayutthaya. I didn't set out to make them our ultimate enemy."
The director admits, however, that there's a potentially controversial detail that may hurl the film right into the political heat: King Naresuan, trying to round up his troops, seeks the help of the Mon people and asks them to help him fight against the Burmese.
Given the ongoing tensions among the ethnic minorities in Burma, this could be interpreted as an act of incitement. "We wouldn't be happy if the Burmese made a film about Pattani," Than Mui says - and it's his darkest joke of the day. He elaborates that in the 16th century, loyalty shifted all the time, and most armies relied on mercenaries who were ready to fight for anyone who paid them. King Naresuan thus had to do everything in his power to get as many soldiers to fight for him, "but we must be careful and try to find the best way to say this," the director says.
And we'll see, hopefully, in five months' time if Naresuan will overcome the rain delay and months-long construction of the exquisite sets, as well as its director's heart condition, to grace the screen in its fullest glory and on schedule. Than Mui says he calls his film The Legend of King Naresuan because, despite the extensive research, there are still many legends surrounding the life story of this ancient king. We only hope that the production of the film itself won't go down as another long, endless legend.