Prince and the Revolution

The artist currently known as prince: director Chatri Chalerm Yukol on the set of 'The Legend of Suriyothai'
Sony Pictures Classics

"Be kind," the Thai prince gently urges in the midst of one of those disarmingly soft handshakes, the capper to a disarmingly amiable interview. "Be kind to my film."

What's a critic to do? The prince's parting words spinning through my head like a pop song refrain ("Be kind/Be kind to my film/Be kind/Be kind to my film"), I race home from the interview to inspect my notes from the day before. Heroine is oddly undynamic, reads the chicken scratch in my reporter's pad. Borderline boring, even. This I scrawled in the dark during the screening of The Legend of Suriyothai, an ostentatious period epic that the 61-year-old prince in the Thai royal family wrote and directed over the course of three and a half years, at a cost of 400 million baht (or $20 million). Now the regal auteur--Chatri Chalerm Yukol is his name--wants me to bow down and pay my respects?

Perhaps, in the name of international diplomacy and so on, I ought to review the man instead. Wearing a preppy pair of gold-rimmed Armani glasses, the top two buttons of his light blue Oxford undone as if to say, I'm on vacation even when I'm working, the artist currently known as prince is the definition of cool. Indeed, though the news of his appearance in town caused what the publicist termed a "mob scene" among Thai Minnesotans gathered around the Nicollet Island Inn, the popular prince himself is so calm and collected that when he speaks you can hardly hear him. (Much of my tape recording of our conversation might as well be blank.)

One suspects that the prince must have at least broken a sweat while staging the biggest film shoot in Thailand's history. "They don't work after noon," Yukol says in a near whisper when asked what it's like to direct elephants, 160 of which were marshaled for the gargantuan production. Further threatening my relatively puny critical resolve, I imagine the prince has less trouble commanding the human members of his herd. I mean, no less a figure than Prince Charles was compelled to beg Yukol for a screening of Suriyothai, a DeMilleian biopic of the Thai princess who died in battle (atop an elephant!) protecting the kingdom of Ayuthaya from Burmese invasion in 1549.

A box-office sensation in its native land, Suriyothai swiftly tripled the national grosses of Titanic and caught the attention of executives and monarchs alike. Turns out even Charles had to wait in line for this blockbuster: Buckingham Palace's request for a private screening was denied by Yukol, who sent the message through Moulin Rouge maker Baz Luhrmann that the movie was unavailable while being recut for international distribution with the help of Francis Ford Coppola. (Lesson: Charles may be a prince, but the Godfather is king.)

Yukol and Coppola go back a long way: They met in the mid-'60s at UCLA, where both were enrolled as film students. The Napa Valley mogul's longstanding appreciation of Asian action epics, in addition to his recent stint as the studios' freelance film editor of choice, made him a natural for the job of whittling down Yukol's eight-hour director's cut (!) to a more marketable 142 minutes. But Coppola's offer to help may well have been one that Yukol couldn't refuse, as the two are also good friends.

Alas, it's hard to see Coppola's work as a favor. Beginning in the Year of the Rat (1528) with young Suriyothai's fateful decision to forsake her true love in order to, a prince, the movie's abridged version unfolds elliptically from the get-go, its forward momentum encumbered by all manner of would-be clarifying intertitles and voiceovers. (Thank Hanuman the Monkey God that plans to shoot supplemental footage of Harvey Keitel as a foreign observer were ultimately scrapped.) During the press screening's first hour, I left for the restroom feeling thoroughly confused by the plot but secure in the belief that nothing I missed would necessarily be more relevant in narrative terms than that which the Godfather had sent to sleep with the fishes.

Am I being unkind? After all, Yukol is not just a celebrity and a prince, but the veteran director of some 23 Thai features, many of which are said to tackle social issues such as drug use, police corruption, and environmental degradation. (His film Taxi Driver--made the same year as Martin Scorsese's--is considered a turning point in Thai cinema. As with the vast majority of Yukol's works, it's unavailable in the U.S.) Yukol's filmmaking, like his royalty, is in the blood: His grandfather worked with American directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack (King Kong) on the pioneering Hollywood-Thai co-production Chang in 1927. And his great-grandfather, King Rama V, collaborated with the Lumières--the brothers who invented cinema--on the 1897 short "King of Siam's Visit to Bern." So who am I to say that this royal is as clumsy with a camera as the prince who erected Graffiti Bridge?

Here's the thing: I'd like to prove that the conservative conventions of polite journalism--the ones that regularly allow visiting artists of considerable privilege and negligible talent to elude critical comment in other profiles--are not the rule in every paper. (I've always wondered: Why does the purchase of round-trip airfare seem to grant the artist immunity from negative appraisal or even mild skepticism?) Hell, I'd like to prove that a wealthy prince's explicit request for the critic's kindness isn't enough to guarantee it here. But the bottom line is that Suriyothai translates as "Thai cinema" (if not as "nonwhite action fare") in the corporate art-house dictionary, so the commercial fate of this pricey venture has a direct bearing on what else we'll see or not see from Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the near future. (Just one example of what's at stake: The buy-it-and-bury-it cineastes at Miramax have been sitting on the delirious Thai Western Tears of the Black Tiger for more than two years now.)

Let me put it this way: Was the last computer-generated American action epic you saw really worth supporting at the expense of something like The Legend of Suriyothai, with its dozens of elephants and thousands of extras, its opulent sets and cheap soap-opera dialogue, its royal heroine who remains perversely aloof even when cutting a handmaiden's throat? Would you really prefer to help enable Charlie's Angels 3, Terminator 4, Bad Boys III, and Jurassic Park 4? It might often seem as though we live in a monarchy, but we still vote with our pocketbooks.

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