Bang Rajan Review
Epic in every sense of the term, Bang Rajan tells the story of the villagers of Bang Rajan (alternatively: Bang Rachan), who, in King Ekkathat’s reign of 1765, successfully defended their isolated village in the province of Sing Buri against eight waves of attacks from invading Burmese troops. Unsurprisingly, this tale has been incredibly influential, becoming a symbol of patriotism, with the people of Thailand honouring these heroes every February in one of the country’s many festivals. The tale of Bang Rajan has also been used frequently by the Thai military governments as a political tool, not only to create unity within the country, but also so that they can claim that they, like the band of villagers, are also acting to protect the nation from external threats. Thus it is not particularly surprising that this film in particular has been so well-received by the public and government alike, as though the story has been told in numerous plays and films over the years, this is by far its most prolific retelling to date.
Much to the discontent of the Burmese government, it was met with international acclaim, taking a record-breaking 11 Surasawadee Thai Film Awards as well as coming second-place in the Fant-Asia Film Festival Awards (losing out to Sympathy For Mr Vengeance). Bang Rajan also impressed director Oliver Stone, who went on to pull a Tarantino, “presenting” it theatrically Stateside under his own banner. At the time of its release it was also the most successful box office film in the history of Thai cinema (2001’s equally epic Suriyothai would later take this record).
Not to worry if there are still details you’re unclear about, as the film opens with a detailed explanation of the Burmese invasion, and the important events that preceded the attacks of 1765. From here we’re immediately launched into one of the latter of the several waves of attacks from the Burmese troops (presumably the fifth or sixth), and you’ll almost certainly notice a significant difference between the way the fights are filmed compared to similar scenes in Western films. Whilst Hollywood tend to aim for immersion in their offerings, here the filmmakers never attempt such an illusion, instead opting to show the cameras getting covered with mud and dirt from the battles, and generally making them part of the action. This can be a little off-putting at first, as we, as viewers, typically feel that we are expected to willingly suspend any disbelief, yet this style of filming makes this particularly difficult. Nevertheless, the action is still exciting, maintaining a raw, visceral edge throughout, but also allowing itself more spectacular moments amidst the realism.
Following the events of 1765 accurately, the film then shows warriors from all around the neighbouring areas coming to Bang Rajan to fight against the Burmese. This is reflected by the main characters, as the majority do not originally come from the village. Chan, a self-proclaimed vigilante, is recruited by the villagers after their leader, Taen, is seriously injured in one of the Burmese attacks. He soon accepts the responsibility, and goes on to lead the villagers against the invading forces, always positioning himself directly at the forefront of the battles, where he skilfully uses his two swords to repel the Burmese. Then there is the drunkard Tong Menn, who finds himself in Bang Rajan after falling asleep in the back of a stranger’s cart. With his two axes, he takes every opportunity to attack the Burmese, hoping to one day find his wife and children.
However, that’s not to say that those originally from the village are not represented in the film. The couple of the warrior Inn, and his partner Sa, feature heavily in the events, and the doomed lovers also provide the film with its most significant romance. There is also the monk, Thammachote, who, although he does not have a particularly large role in the film, is still regarded highly today. As one of the documentaries on the second disc states, people still visit his statue to this day, hoping that he will heal their illnesses as he did the wounds of the Bang Rajan warriors. This is shown in the film when the villagers ask him for something that will make them invulnerable to the arms of their enemy. He indeed provides them with cloth that they each wrap around their arm, and it proves to be successful to an extent.
Considering that many of the actors have little to no experience, coming from occupations such as fitness instructor, or student, it is surprising that they manage to do such a great job. Evidently, they were all very dedicated, completing months of demanding preparation for their roles, and this is reflected in their believable performances. The male leads are also particularly convincing on the battlefield, brandishing many unfamiliar weapons, such as modified staffs and axes. Despite the budget, occasionally the special effects are also remarkable, most notably when a Burmese troop holds up a decapitated head, which looks just as, if not more realistic than Western filmmakers’ attempts at this.
Being historically accurate, there is never going to be any doubt as to the conclusion of the film. With no need to build suspense in these regards, it should theoretically provide more opportunities to develop the characters. Unfortunately, aside from Inn and Sa, and their relationship together, many of the main characters are left undeveloped, with their backgrounds either being revealed hurriedly during conversations with each other, or not at all. Thankfully, despite being two-dimensional, or based off clichés, all the characters are still sympathetic and likeable. Thus, the ending loses none of its impact as the remaining villagers prepare to fight to the death against the Burmese troops, who now possess cannons, as well as a merciless new general. The action in this finale is excellent, and, being full of emotion and even poetic at times, this scene is the perfect way to end the film.
The transfer is anamorphic, and boasts great detail throughout. Colour tones are especially impressive, and the image generally seems to have been reproduced very faithfully indeed. The contrast levels and tones are good even in the nighttime scenes, although in these, the blacks seem to wander between being too strong, and slightly obtrusive, to not dark enough. Print damage is minimal, but grain is prevalent during the darker scenes.
There are three surround tracks to choose from – Thai DTS, Thai DD 5.1, and also an English dub in DD 5.1. The DTS track has a clear edge over the others, exhibiting great clarity throughout, and adding plenty of punch to the action scenes. The sound effects used in the fights can get repetitive, but this track ensures that they are all powerful, and it also utilises all the speakers well. As per usual, the Dolby 5.1 mix is very similar, but sounds comparatively weaker during the battle scenes, of which there are many. The English dub is also technically good, and the translation used is almost identical to the subtitles (although not necessarily indicative of dubtitles), but some of the voice-overs are laughable. This is really a film that needs to be watched in its original language.
On the first disc, there is a feature-length audio commentary by Bey Logan and Mike Leeder. Bey Logan admits that he too is relatively new to Thai cinema, so don’t expect the anecdotes and depth he brings to his commentaries on Chinese films. Instead, he makes many obvious comparisons to similar films from America, such as Braveheart, and his remarks also tend to be relevant to Asian films in general, rather than specifically Thai films. Both men also find themselves falling back on humour on many occasions (often as a result of their mispronunciations of Thai names), so this is very much an entertaining commentary, rather than an enlightening one. They do occasionally mention interesting pieces of information, but the majority is nothing you wouldn’t be able to find out from a quick search on Google - indeed I found myself coming across many of the same items in preparation for this review.
On to the second disc now, and here the special features are split up into three separate categories: The Players, The Artists, and The Promotional Archive.
The first of these categories, The Players, contains three interviews with actors and actresses from the film. The Power of One, (12’55”) is an interview with lead actor Jaran Ngamdee, who appears without the extravagant moustache that made him so recognisable in the film, and describes his origins as a fitness instructor, and the intensive preparation he had to do the role (two hours of practice a day for several months until he could wield two swords convincingly). He also talks about the difficulties of riding a horse for the first time, and offers his own thoughts on the historical background of the film.
In the next feature, Warrior Elite (12’20”), the other male lead, Winai Kraibutr, talks about his role as the patriotic soldier Nai In, and covers many similar subjects to Jaran Ngamdee in the previous interview. However, we are given more of an insight into the Thai film industry in this interview, as Kraibutr talks about how he is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Business in Bangkok, as it is apparently a tough time for actors in the country. It’s also worth noting that Kraibutr conducts the entire interview in English (the others speak in Thai), and so some of what he says can be a little hard to understand at the beginning until his confidence picks up.
The final interview, Daughter of Courage (14’16”), is with actress Bongkot Khongmalai, who plays one of the doomed lovers, Sa, and describes her accidental beginnings as an actress. From describing when she met director Thanit Jitnukul at a social event, to the inconveniences of maintaining chronological accuracy on set, through to mentioning her aspirations to “…find and play new and eccentric characters” in the future, she is constantly enthusiastic and has lots to say.
Moving on to The Artists section, the first interview, and also the most substantial on the entire disc, is entitled Walking Through History (40’50”), and features director Thanit Jitnukul talking about the film for just over forty minutes. He predominately describes the practical aspects of filming, such as creating such a large-scale, historically accurate epic with the relatively restrictive budget that they had. Interestingly, the director had intended the film to convey a strong anti-War message, and whilst I agree that he had certainly not romanticised the events, I’m not quite sure he was as successful as he may have hoped in these regards.
Impossible Dream (23’44”), an interview with executive producer Adirek Wattaleela, is the only other feature in this section. He contrasts the process of shooting the film with that of Hollywood’s similar efforts, and explains how the living costs, and production costs are relatively low in Thailand, hence they managed to recreate the various skirmishes by hiring literally thousands of extras rather than using CGI techniques which films such as Lord of the Rings and Gladiator employed to try and emphasise the size of the armies. As a result, the limitations with their budget did not particularly hinder them, and instead actually helped the crew maintain realism and authenticity.
Finally, The Promotional Archive houses three very interesting featurettes; the first two, Bang Rajan Re-Scored (4’22”) and Legend Re-Born are the shorter of the offerings. The former is a short documentary that describes how Premier Asia’s composer, Richard Wells, worked with the Slovak Symphony Orchestra in early 2003 to record several pieces of music for the label’s catalogue. Understandably, this specific documentary focuses on the compositions he produced for this DVD’s menus, and Hong Kong Legend’s UK promotional trailer for Bang Rajan. The latter is a compilation of the film’s many fight scenes, interspersed with on-location shots (pre-editing) as well as some brief notes from the director. The third featurette, the documentary-style Echoes of Battle (21’52”), offers the “True Story of Bang Rajan”, with the narrator describing the historical events in detail. There are also testimonials from several Thai people who claim that the statue of Phra Ajarn Thammachoti, the spiritual monk of the villagers, has somehow healed them, or performed other miraculous actions.
There are also three trailers, the Original Theatrical Trailer (2’14”), the UK Promotional Trailer (2’20”), and various others for films in Hong Kong Legends’, and Premier Asia’s catalogues. No mention of Thai martial-arts extravaganza Ong Bak though…
Although by no means flawless, Bang Rajan is a highly enjoyable epic, and a great introduction to Thai cinema. This double-disc release presents the film admirably, and also provides a selection of interesting special features. Well worth picking up if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of Asian cinema.
Last updated: 29/06/2018 00:57:01