All said, many particulars of Suriyothai might elude the average viewer: This two-and-a-half-hour film covers two particularly dramatic decades in 16th-century Thailand, when several royal families vie for control. One clan is headed by the wise and noble, the titular Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) and her monkish husband, Tien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang). Another dynasty falls under the control of an ambitious courtesan, and the resulting unrest prompts northern neighbor Burma to essay an invasion.
Chatri Chalerm Yukol's film was a terrific hit in his native Thailand, yet has been trimmed by 40 minutes for international release. As such, the already thinly stretched history at times is incomprehensible. Sub-plots are never fully developed, such as the purported unrequited love between Suriyothai and the warrior Lord Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich). Presumably to account for the story gaps, Yukol uses intertitles (that provide the precise lunar date of an event, but hardly help sort out who is who) and a voiceover recital of facts that you scramble to catch up with.
The middle section of the film feels the most intact, and is the most enjoyable. Here, the deliciously bad courtesan Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) stalks and seduces the guard of a religious shrine; she pouts, and preens, and misdirects suspicion onto others. Beautiful and ruthless, she slinks around like a bad cat, and I sorely wished some of the other actors could rise to her level of melodrama. Bosom-heaving is an oft-derided but integral part of any grand costume epic.
Oh, but the costuming and design are simply magnificent: every precisely twisted strand of hair, the silks and brocades artfully draped over (for the most part) lean, sinewy frames, the ornate palaces (many actual historical sites were used) filled with pillowy divans and endlessly scraping servants. When the plot gets tricky, there is plenty to admire.
Suriyothai was funded by the Thai royal family -- it has the whiff of the nationally edifying -- and it must have cost a princely sum. What was spent on recreating royal headgear alone! And elephants -- hundreds of painted elephants! By today's standards, a battle fought from atop elephants seems ungainly -- particularly after all the royal pillows are strapped on. On the other hand, even as a re-creation, you're not likely to see an elephant battle in any other film this year. In Thai with English subtitles.