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August 30, 2001

Bigger Than `Titanic': No Expense Spared on a Thai Epic
By Jennifer Gampell

IF YOU THOUGHT "The King and I" was a true picture of Thai history, you'll change your mind after seeing "Suriyothai." In this lavish film epic, which opened this month in cinemas throughout Thailand, Siamese monarchs do not learn ballroom dancing from impertinent British governesses who meddle in local politics. Instead they preside over picture-perfect, gilded-throne halls, worry about incursions from neighboring Burma and plot against rival principalities. Meanwhile, their gorgeous queens and consorts adorn themselves in gold jewelry and midriff-revealing silk, recline in palatial splendor and connive with and against other courtiers. As for ordinary Thais, they pass their days fighting bloody battles or prostrating themselves reverentially before a frequently changing succession of sovereigns.

"Suriyothai's" director Chatri Chalerm Yukol has 25 previous films to his credit and is himself a member of the royal family -- a distant relative of the current queen, Sirikit. He spent five years laboriously researching the story about an obscure 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.

Brought back to Thailand by Prince Chatri after sound mixing at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in California, just in time for its royal premiere before the king and queen of Thailand earlier this month, "Suriyothai" has broken most Thai film-industry records. It boasts the longest shooting and postproduction (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 prints, far exceeding the 120 prints of "Titanic" made for Thailand, and it's also the highest grossing film, foreign or domestic, to date in the country. (As of this past Sunday, it had grossed about 260 million baht, or $5.7 million; "Titanic" took in about $4 million.) 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 $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 $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."

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 the 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 in fleshing out the details of 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 1999's "Anna and the King" (based on the original novel behind "The King and I"), 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 complaints about 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 they're paying unusually hefty ticket prices -- as much as $3.30, compared with a usual price of around $2. 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 postponed to distance them from the "Suriyothai" tsunami.

Now that "Suriyothai" is finally out, the next hurdle will be negotiating the international rights. Mr. Dibbayawan arrived in the U.S. this week looking for a buyer; he denies rumors that New Line Cinema and Miramax have already bid for the film. He'll be showing the current three-hour version but says that Prince Chatri will recut a shorter version of around two hours. 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 U.S. 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."

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright 2001 Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell