Packed with enough intrigue, bloodletting, poisonings, and betrayals to fuel a half dozen melodramas, the opulent Thai spectacle “The Legend of Suriyothai,” premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera house on Feb. 12, is a densely plotted, tightly paced depiction of the legendary Thai warrior princess Suriyothai.
Set in 16th century Siam (now Thailand), this time-spanning tale follows the title character (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) as she matures from feisty, independent teenager to selfless national heroine. In the first of many sacrifices she will make for the good of her country, Princess Suriyothai of the Southern Kingdom marries handsome Prince Tiren (Sarunyu Wongkrachang) of the Northern Kingdom to quell civil strife, even though her heart belongs to another, Piren. Harmony between the kingdoms proves short-lived, however, once the King of Southern Ayuthaya launches a campaign to unite the two kingdoms under his rule. Throw into this convoluted mix the king's scheming, power-hungry consort (is there any other kind?), who's hell-bent on restoring the disgraced U-Thong dynasty to power, and the stage is set for Suriyothai to prove her mettle as a shrewd political strategist and courageous warrior.
In the film's climactic scene, Suriyothai accompanies her husband into battle against invading Burmese forces. Atop her trusted elephant, she inspires the king's men to repel the invaders, and earns her place in Thai history.
Director Chatri Chalerm Yukol orchestrates the film's many battle scenes skillfully. He also knows how to milk the scenes of royal court intrigue for all their dramatic worth without completely descending into camp (though he skirts the edge several times). The evil high consort's massive, possibly lesbian hench-woman would be right at home in one of those “women-in-prison” exploitation films of the 1970s. And the last-gasp, deathbed speeches from characters are the stuff of creaky Victorian melodrama. Yet within the larger-than-life context of “The Legend of Suriyothai,” such boldface characters and elements seem appropriate.
“The Legend of Suriyothai” is receiving an American release largely due to the efforts of Francis Ford Coppola. The Oscar-winning director/producer has championed many independent and foreign films over the years, from Kagemusha to Mishima (1985).
Chatri Chalerm Yukol is a member of the Thai royal family and Queen Sirikit, who saw it as a tool with which to educate Thai youth, largely funded the film. She assigned several thousand soldiers from the country's armed forces to re-enact historic battles using costumes and weapons that are painstaking reproductions of the originals. All of this, she has said, in aid of helping Thais to remember their colorful history.
“The Legend of Suriyothai” will be screened at 7 p.m. Feb. 12, 13 and 14, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15. It has a running time of two hours, 22 minutes. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3. Call 781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to pre-order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.