In 1765, Burma's massive army invaded Siam (now called Thailand), but a remote village named Bang Rajan held the attackers at bay for five months. In Thailand today, the name "Bang Rajan" strikes patriotic chords like "the Alamo" does here, evoking bravery, sacrifice and national pride. Despite characters as flat as Asian shadow puppets, director Tanit Jitnukul's Bang Rajan marched on to become the most successful Thai film in the country's history.
True to its name, the film starts with a bang. Bare-chested guerilla fighters from Bang Rajan wait to ambush approaching Burmese forces. One villager fires a rifle and the film switches to a bullet's-eye view as it dives into the trumpet -- and then the head -- of an enemy soldier. In the ensuing melee, Burmese and Siamese warriors charge and collide with swords a-hacking, and Jitnukul's hand-held camera conveys the speed and bone-snapping impact. You imagine the stuntmen's infirmary sprawling for acres.
Jitnukul's battlefield invention proves almost manic. One attacking villager swings on a vine like an extra from a Tarzan movie. The editing can outpace the audience's comprehension: In what seems like seconds, the village forces fall back, rain suddenly falls, and then the good guys erupt from a newly formed mud puddle, arrows cocked to catch the Burmese off-guard.
The film's battle scenes put recent war films like The Alamo and King Arthur to shame. Yet Bang Rajan's characterization proves no better than the thinnest Hollywood epic. Early in the film, stalwart fighter Chan (Jaran Ngamdee) becomes Bang Rajan's new leader, yet his only distinguishing quality is a handlebar mustache worthy of a 19th-century bare-knuckled boxer.
Bang Rajan's huge bamboo gate, suitable for keeping out King Kong, upstages its actual inhabitants. The handsome young lovers Inn (Winai Kraibutr) and Sa (Bongkoj) serve as the romantic leads and hang around with a sillier, less attractive couple who provide a little comic relief. Tong-Menn (Bin Bunluerit), a shaggy yet unstoppable drunk who swings axes in both hands, provides the most memorable presence. At one point he rides into battle atop a water buffalo with horns as wide as a Humvee.
During the film's downtime, Jitnukul foreshadows events with comic clumsiness. A young warrior tells a comely woman, "One day my sword will protect you," and lo and behold, five minutes later his sword does protect her.
Bang Rajan doesn't follow through on chances to enrich its characters. In the film's second half, Inn abandons lookout duty to make a daring commando raid on the adversary. His absence gives the Burmese a chance to invade and nearly decimate the village, so when Inn returns, he feels that his neighbors' blood is on his hands. He guiltily confesses a need to redeem himself -- but the incident never comes up again.
Bang Rajan nevertheless triumphs in its combat sequences and other details of 18th-century jungle fighting. The villagers smelt their own cannons and, thanks to flirting workers, the efforts subtly suggest a fertility ritual. Jitnukul's first battle scenes suggest an exhilaration, capturing the villagers' pride at surviving against impossible odds. But as the campaign continues, we see more festering wounds, bandaged stumps and other collateral damage, making the brutality of war unmistakable.
When Bang Rajan's defenders make their last stand against the countless troops of a psychotic general, the level of bloodshed approaches Saving Private Ryan. Bang Rajan's violent crescendo includes some of the melodrama that diminishes the rest of the film, but still leaves the audience drained and shaken at the horrors of war. By the powerful conclusion of Bang Rajan, we go out with a whimper.
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