Bang Rajan is a terrifically entertaining, nice and gory old-timey battle epic, the sheer earnestly reverent seriousness of which almost, almost manages to overcome the innate silliness of its execution. I like this movie a lot, I’m just more excited by the idea of what, with its irresistibly populist story and giddy self-indulgence, it could have been.
My first problem is with its conflicted aesthetics. The movie’s wonderful verdant setting, finely (if anachronistically) chiselled warrior heroes and lovely maidens are well exploited by an inventive and energetic camera in the slower scenes, but the style employed elsewhere is less impressive. The battle scenes are shot in the increasingly annoying breakneck, incoherent style which has been the norm in Hollywood’s sword and sandal epics in recent years. We are thrown at least one very simple visual point of reference, though, which is of great help: in accordance with the Indiana Jones law, the bad guys are the ones with the white towels around their heads. Otherwise, confusing sequences of ultra-fast cutting punctuated by the occasional slow-motion shot and a lot of out-of-place smoke look straight out of Ridley Scott. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that battle scenes of this type are not effective — they must be popular for a reason — they’re just getting very, very same-ish. It is obviously worth noting that Bang Rajan was made in 2000, near the beginning of this stylistic trend.
And then there’s the conflict between what the story wants to be and what the people ponying up the dough need it to be. Obviously self-conscious about making a movie in which the principal characters are stone-carved figures of legend, the film attempts a good deal of character-developing scenes which actually do more harm than good, making the poor actors look like they’d rather get back to the gym. This kind of pandering to mass audience expectations is unfortunate. Just once I’d like to see a legend-based movie unashamedly proud of the fact that its characters are the one-dimensional representations of a single quality, rather than labour under the timid misconception that making a character more complex is always a good thing, and then doing a half-assed job of it.
An avowedly sentimental work about an event of obviously considerable nationalistic importance in Thailand, Bang Rajan inevitably contains the same aggressive patriotism and insularity that marks, or perhaps mars, all of the (admittedly few) Thai action movies I have seen. This is a minor point, however. Given that the movie is based on a centuries old occurrence that has since become legend, this attitude seems less egregious here than elsewhere. There is something about the passage of time and the blurring of the line between history and legend that allows storytellers to paint in broader strokes. And boy, does this one do that… at least some of the time.
Bang Rajan exhibits a frustrating unevenness of both style and narrative, demonstrating that first time director Tanit Jitnukul experienced some conflict between his calculations and his instincts. I wish he had gone a little more with the instincts.