Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Sampanthawong
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (662) 237-3362
Mobile: (661) 925-7187
E-mail:
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August 24-26, 2001

Weekend Journal: The Gospel According to Suriyothai
Now You Can Believe Almost Everything You See At The Movies

By Jennifer Gampell

Thai history is being rewritten for the silver screen. Previous movie versions of life at the royal court of Siam were seriously flawed. According to the lavish epic "Suriyothai" which opened last Friday in cinemas throughout Thailand, Siamese monarchs never learned ballroom dancing from impertinent British governesses who meddled in local politics. Instead they presided over picture-perfect gilded throne halls, worried about incursions from neighboring Burma and plotted against rival principalities. Meanwhile, their gorgeous queens and consorts adorned themselves in expensive gold jewelry and midriff-revealing silk, reclined in palatial splendour and connived their own court intrigues. As for the lowly plebes, they passed their days fighting bloody battles or else prostrating themselves reverentially before a frequently-changing succession of sovereigns.

Veteran director Chatri Chalerm Yukol has 25 previous films to his credit and is himself a member of the royal family (distantly related to the current queen of Thailand). He spent five years laboriously researching the story about an obscure Ayutthayan queen who died in a 1548 battle against Burmese invaders. Maneuvering her elephant in front of the Burmese king Tabinshweeti, Suriyothai took the sword thrust meant for her husband King Chakrapat and saved the kingdom of Ayutthaya.

Brought back to Thailand by Prince Chatri after sound mixing at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in California just in time for its royal premier for the King and Queen of Thailand on Aug. 12, "Suriyothai" breaks most Thai film industry records. It boasts the longest shooting and post-production (three years), longest screening time (190 minutes), as well as the most spectacular sets and costumes, biggest cast (2,000 extras, 80 elephants and 70 horses) and most international crew (foreign cinematographer, sound and lighting engineers). It's being released in an unprecedented 350 copies, far exceeding the 120 prints of "Titanic," the biggest grossing film to date in Thailand. It's also the first Thai film accompanied by a Hollywood-style merchandising campaign complete with Suriyothai mugs, T-shirts, caps and key chains. Nearly US$5 million was spent on advertising for the domestic launch--more than the production budgets of most Thai films.

"Suriyothai" is also the most expensive Thai film ever made. "Officially we're saying US$20 million, give or take," declared Gerald Dibbayawan, who heads GMT, the company charged with selling the international distribution rights. "But nobody really kept track of how much it's cost. Many scenes were shot on crown property with special assistance from the Thai military and you can't put a price on that." (In comparison, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" cost around US$15 excluding advertising.)

Ongoing support from Queen Sirikit was instrumental to the project's eventual completion. The Queen presided over the first day of shooting in April 1999, chose the leading actress (a minor member of the royal family who is also one of queen's ladies-in-waiting), and maintained close contact with Prince Chatri throughout the production.

Since most of the available historical data on Suriyothai relates to her heroic death, Prince Chatri took certain liberties fleshing out the details about the rest of her 40-something years. "History is speculation," he explained in May last year. "You have certain facts and then you think about human behavior."

Does "Suriyothai" portray Siamese history any more accurately than "Anna and the King," which was denied filming permission in Thailand because of script errors? "At least the costumes, settings, and customs are correct in my film," said Prince Chatri, who has repeatedly reiterated that getting Thai people to take an interest in their own history overrides issues of the film's historical accuracy.

Spurred on by a media blitz that crescendoed in the final days leading up to the release, people from all walks of life are flocking to cinemas (and paying unusually hefty ticket prices). University professors have assigned "Suriyothai" as homework and school classes receive special volume discounts to the performances. The releases of "Jurassic Park III" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" were put back to distance them from the "Suriyothai" tsunami.

Now that "Suriyothai" is finally out, the next hurdle will be negotiating the international rights. Mr. Dibbayawan denies local rumors that New Line Cinema and Miramax have already bid for the film. Because domestic performance is key to the selling price, he's waiting for the anticipated record-breaking box office figures before taking it on the road. And for Prince Chatri to recut a shorter version of around 105-110 minutes. Most foreign moviegoers won't watch three subtitled hours with so much historical commentary, he explains.

Fleshing out the central characters and removing some of the extraneous battle scenes and subplots could indeed transform the spectacularly visual "Suriyothai" into an international winner. Especially in the current Asia-friendly cinematic climate. However, any company that ends up buying the US rights to "Suriyothai" will have to guarantee a certain amount of playing time there says Mr. Dibbayawan. "It's not just about the money. It's about the pride of the nation."

Copyright 2001 Asian Wall Street Journal