You don’t need a master’s degree in Thai history to appreciate Thanit Jitnukul’s Bang Rajan, a commanding 18th-century war epic that won 11 Suraswadee Awards (Thai Oscars) in 2000 and is now receiving a stateside release. An overpowering film of grand emotion and even grander action, the film recounts the heroism of the rural inhabitants of Bang Rajan, a small Siamese town which, as a result of its unwillingness to succumb to the invading Burmese aggressors, became the epicenter of anti-Burmese dissent and spent eight months in 1765-1766 repeatedly fending off the military advances of the enormous, heavily armed conquerors who were marching toward the capital city of Ayutthaya. Though destined to fail, these outnumbered freedom fighters eventually became national heroes once the Siamese regained control of the country, and Jitnukul’s film—a spiritual descendent of The Seven Samurai—canonizes their sacrificial plight as a stirring act of national self-definition.
With their aged leader badly wounded and eager to enlist local dissidents to their cause, skilled archer In (Winai Kraibutr) and the remaining soldiers of Bang Rajan convince a famed warrior named Jan (Jaran Ngamdee) and his battalion to lead the town against the encroaching Burmese hoards. The town is a scraggly hodgepodge of young and old, and director Jitnukul, wise to the moneymaking lessons of Titanic, primarily humanizes the village’s struggle not through the impressively chiseled Jan or the town’s cynical, hopeless drunk (Bin Banleurit) but by focusing on the love affairs of two youthful couples whose doomed romances serve as heart-rending encapsulations of the film’s larger tragedy. Part of what makes the film so entertaining—as well as occasionally stilted and goofy—is its unabashed employment of unironic melodrama, as every emotional exchange (between mother and son, husband and wife, soldier and enemy) is writ large in an effort to achieve a legendary grandeur. But the truly monumental appeal of Bang Rajan is its decapitation-heavy, human rubble-strewn battle scenes, which—aided by grimily authentic period details, as well as Jitnukul’s flair for the dramatic and his astute decision to regularly keep his camera low to the rumbling ground—achieve a thundering, bull-rush intensity. Watching Banluerit’s ax-wielding souse storm into combat on the back of a gigantically horned water buffalo, I couldn’t help but think that Kurosawa would have been impressed.