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Palace intrigues: The Legend of Suriyothai.

Long Ago and Far Away
By Ann Morrow

The Legend of Suriyothai
Directed by Chatri Chalerm Yukol

With the arrival of The Legend of Suriyothai, the first large-scale historical epic from Thailand, Western audiences have another filmic reference beside The King and I on the fascinations of the former Siam. Written and directed by the respected Thai filmmaker Chatri Chalerm Yukol, this lavish folk tale follows the life of Suriyothai the Warrior Queen, an iconic figure in Thailand’s national identity. The queen wasn’t really a warrior, but her loyalty, diplomacy, and bravery amply justify a feature-length film in any language.

Opening in 1528, the legend starts out slowly, more like a costume processional than a costume drama. The future queen (Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) is a princess of 15, and chafing at the restrictions of nobility. But it’s her high spirits rather than her lineage that attracts the attention of Prince Thien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang), second son of the king of Ayuthaya, the mightiest land in Siam. Suriyothai is in love with her childhood sweetheart, Lord Piren (Chatchi Plengpanich), but in the strategic interests of the kingdom, she agrees to marry the prince. It is the first of the pivotal sacrifices that she will make for her country.

Many years of domestic contentment and child rearing go by, yet Suriyothai is unfulfilled. So, too, is the audience. The enchanting culture of Siam and the exoticism of court life only go so far, while episodic introductions of characters and places unfold with the stiffness of a museum tour. It doesn’t help that the subtitles are stilted and simplistic, often clashing with the formal tableaux of the cinematography with unintentional humor. But after Thien’s older brother usurps the throne of Ayuthaya (Thien is kind of like the Prince of Wales, heading a kingdom within a kingdom), things start to pick up. The storybook format begins to flow with the force of fable, and the sheer volume of authentic detailing envelops the viewer in a long-ago land of ritualized beheadings, tropical palaces, elephant cavalry, Portuguese mercenaries and dangerously labyrinthine relationships.

Following the death of his queen, the king marries a high consort from another realm, a woman who is as treacherous as she is seductive. When the iron-willed ruler goes off to battle the opportunistic boy-king of Burma, the consort takes a lover from her homeland, a voluptuously handsome and easily corrupted troubadour. The intrigues of the traitorous couple are carried out by the consort’s right-hand man, who is a woman, and as cruelly ambitious as any Machiavellian minion. The Medicis have nothing on this gang, and despite Suriyothai’s sage advice, her passive—some say cowardly—husband does nothing while the kingdom falls into despair. Though the film is unequivocally about the stuff of legend, with flashes of dreamy imagery flickering through the stately action, it also delineates a compelling dynastic struggle, in which good and evil exist as alternating currents in the turbulent growth of a nation. And none of the characters are as black and white as they first appear; Prince Thien, for example, isn’t a passive weakling but an enlightened pacifist. By the time of Lord Piren’s return, the lengthy buildup is paying off and even those viewers who were bored or confused by the first third may find themselves utterly swept up in the twisty-turny battle for the soul of Ayuthaya.

The gathering narrative momentum concludes with an astonishingly rapturous sequence from the war with Burma. Filmmaker Yukol, a real-life prince, received backing for the film from the queen of Thailand, with hopes that the film would spur an interest in the country’s history. His majestic epic succeeds at that and more: It puts Thai cinema on the map.

Under the Roofs of Paris

Le Divorce
Directed by James Ivory

Ahh, the French. Wonderful food and wine, which go beautifully with their essential Gallic deviousness. This would seem to be the philosophical position of Le Divorce, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Diane Johnson’s novel. How timely.

In the year’s most blonde-on-blonde casting, Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson play sisters Roxy and Isabel. Roxy is married to a swarthy Frenchy (Melvil Poupaud) who, when we first meet them, is in the process of abandoning both her and their young daughter. Roxy, by the way, is also five months pregnant with child number two. Isabel arrives from California, ostensibly to help sis through the pregnancy, but mainly to have a wild time with the free-lovin’ French.

While Roxy struggles with her husband’s icily correct family, a calculating bunch led by mother-in-law Suzanne (Leslie Caron), Isabel balances a casual fling with a free-spirited young social activist (Romain Duris) and a more formal arrangement as mistress to the much-older Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte). In addition to being a wealthy, right-wing politician, Edgar also happens to be Suzanne’s brother. (Might as well keep it in the family.) Isabel loves playing with the rituals of being a mistress; she especially likes the goodies, including the $6,000 Kelly bag Edgar gives her as a door prize for showing up. We later learn that bestowing this particular brand of purse on the lover of the moment is a tradition with him.

Things happen. There’s a subplot about a painting that may or may not be worth millions. People have sex, scheme to steal fortunes, attempt suicide, banter wittily about love and eat marvelous-looking food.

The perfectly etched performances by the large supporting cast give the film its Continental sting, as well as most of its pure moviegoing pleasure. Caron, as the wily matriarch, is steely graciousness and cunning; Lhermitte is the epitome of self-regard as Edgar; Stephen Fry manages to be both fussy and blunt as a Francophobe English art dealer; and Jean-Marc Barr balances sympathy and legal cunning as Roxy’s lawyer. The Americans—led by Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston as the girls’ parents—don’t get to be nearly as entertaining. Thomas Lennon, however, as the sisters’ nervously greedy brother, is hilarious. It would have been nice if the Americans could have been as well-caricatured as the French, in the interests of both fairness and entertainment.

This circle game of love, lust, infidelity and family intrigue is just beguiling enough to get by. That’s all, however. In spite of the sex, social maneuvering, legal backstabbing and murder, Le Divorce remains tonally flat. Director James Ivory would benefit from a greater appreciation for absurdity. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t take things too seriously, but his pious neutrality is unengaging—what Luis Buńuel could have done with this story.

—Shawn Stone

Illegally Blonde

Marci X
Directed by Richard Benjamin

What if P. Diddy, back when he was Puff Daddy and chillin’ in the Hamptons with Martha Stewart, had dumped J. Lo for Libby Grubman, Fifth Avenue’s blondest felon? The tabloid coverage would probably have been funnier than Marci X, but that’s no reason not see this feel-good comedic bauble. Shamelessly silly and spiked with a few laugh-out-loud moments, the film takes as its inspiration the status-seeking materialism common to both platinum-selling rappers and Manhattan’s tycoon class. The humor herein is obvious (and doesn’t pretend otherwise) but because screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) and Lisa Kudrow, who plays the Jewish-American princess Marci Feld, are a match made in comedy heaven, it works like a charm. And that includes the poofy video-style musical numbers.

Marci is a Chanel-clad socialite whose only occupation is presiding over charity events. When her father, a media mogul (director Richard Benjamin), has a heart attack, Marci marches to the rescue of one of his holdings, a hardcore rap label. The label’s biggest star, Dr. S (Damon Wayans) committed an Eminen-style offense on TV, incurring a ruinous lawsuit. Marci and her three closest chums—each of them titillated by the vulgarity of the rap world—attend an S concert in Harlem, with the aim of getting the nasty rapper to publicly apologize. Attempting to humiliate Marci for her temerity in expecting him to make a public-service announcement, S lures her onstage and subjects her to the derision of his audience. But instead of fleeing, she launches into a rap called the “Power of the Purse” that brings the ladies in the house to their feet, waving their Kelly bags and Balenciaga clutches to the beat. The film is defiantly unedgy, but just when you think a set-up is too corny to be endured, a zinger or a sight gag hits home, as when Christine Baranski as the uptight Senator Sprinkle gets down to one of the doctor’s ditties—and works herself into a physical paroxysm that outdoes her airborne puppet bit from Chicago.

Marci X is dated in parts—as far as political targets go, was Tipper Gore really the best Rudnick could come up with? Yet it is also refreshingly free of culture-clash cliches: Marci and S hit it off immediately, bonding over comparisons between her white mink coat and his Siberian-chinchilla coat. The question here isn’t whether Marci and S will get it on—they do—but which of the two is more “real.” Wayans’ low-key rap impersonation is sly rather than satirical; S is actually a soft-spoken entrepreneur whose skanky street cred is managed by his partner, the notorious Tubby Fenders. And Kudrow proves again (as she did in the little-seen Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion) that she is the finest comedian of her generation. The film may be a piffle, but the talents of Kudrow and Wayans are real enough to squeak it by.

—Ann Morrow

Not Dead Yet

The Medallion
Directed by Gordon Chan

This mess of a movie is more entertaining than not. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but, unfortunately, that’s the best that can be said about Jackie Chan’s latest, The Medallion.

Chan plays Eddie, a Hong Kong cop working with a dorky Interpol agent named Watson (Lee Evans) to catch Snakehead (Julian Sands), an international criminal mastermind. Eddie’s former love interest, Nicole (Claire Forlani) turns up at some point as another Interpol agent. They follow Snakehead to Dublin, where he has absconded with Jai (Alex Bao), a little kid who is apparently hotwired to the eternal life force—he can use the titular medallion to bring the dead back to life. Somewhere along the way, Eddie rescues the kid, the kid brings Eddie back from the dead and Eddie discovers he has superhuman powers. This, in turn, is the reason Snakehead wanted the kid in the first place.

It’s painfully obvious that the film has been through the editor’s shredder. Keen viewers will note, when watching the blooper reel at the end of the film, that the title on the production slate is Highbinders, not The Medallion. Whatever “highbinders” was supposed to refer to is unknown, as the word is never mentioned in the movie. There are plot holes big enough to hide all the weapons of mass destruction in the world. One of the film’s biggest reversals goes completely unexplained. Geeky Watson’s wife Charlotte (Christy Chung) supposedly believes her hubby is a librarian, not a secret agent; however, when their house is besieged by the bad guys, Charlotte breaks out a hidden arsenal of artillery, proving more adept with big guns and high kicks than her husband. It’s an exciting scene and a very funny plot twist—Chung is a lithe dynamo—but no one mentions the incongruity. Instead, it’s off to the evildoers’ lair and the (ho-hum) ending.

With his last stateside release, the special-effects-laden The Tuxedo, Chan started taking heat from critics and fans for relying on digital effects to punch-up his action sequences. The Medallion is similarly loaded with digital and/or wire-work effects. Chan is almost 50 years old now; the body can take just so much punishment. He is simply finding a way to extend his career. The question, of course, is at what point will the career no longer be worth extending?

As the outtakes shown during the credits reveal, however, he did his own stunts in the film’s best sequence. Dodging cars, slipping through spaces that seem absurdly small, dancing along the fence tops with the grace of Fred Astaire and stopping only to beat up the bad guy. Chan can still create action scenes with great fluidity and excitement. He shouldn’t retire just yet.

—Shawn Stone


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