Since first being turned into a popular novel in 1968, Bangrajan is a story that’s been told in numerous forms in Thailand. The year is 1767, and the Burmese are advancing on the former Thai capital of Ayutthaya from the west and north. The troops advancing from the north have already been frustrated in their attempts to reach the capital three times by a small group of villagers from Bangrajan, enraging the Burmese, who vow to keep attacking.
When Bangrajan’s original leader is injured, outsider Nai Jan (Jaran Ngamdee), who is famed for his bravery against the Burmese, is asked to lead the village’s defence. As villagers from surrounding areas come to Bangrajan to help the resistance, others flee to Ayuttaya in fear of the impending Burmese invasion. This is the tale of the Bangrajan villagers’ attempts to save their village and preserve their lives: "Better a dead free man than a live Burmese slave".
The movie opens with the fourth battle in full flight. And it’s an intense, impressive scene, a no-holds-barred visionary record of the awfulness of battle, not unlike the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
The unfolding tale centers on four of the eleven warriors who are immortalised in Singburi province’s Bangrajan Monument: Nai Jan, Nai Thong Men (Bin Banlualit), Nai In (Winai Kraibutr), and Nai Meuang (Atthakorn Suwannaraj).
Nai In has just married E Sa (Bongkoj Khongmalai), who is upset to learn she is pregnant during this time of war and won’t tell her husband, while Nai Meuang confesses his love for E Tang On (Suntharee Maila-or). As the battles progress, their respective stories unfold.
As a war movie, this version of Bangrajan certainly succeeds. There are numerous graphic scenes of raw violence: massive swords slice through the air before sinking deep into flesh and dismembering limbs and heads; arrows pierce the unprotected bare chests of warriors, and axes are hurled with disconcerting accuracy. Director Thanit Jitnukul has done a fine job of putting together some amazing battle scenes, with the impressive sound effects – and the music – being particularly noteworthy.
As a history, what appears on the screen is fascinating, but as in any big screen depiction, one wonders about the accuracy of the story, the depiction of the characters, and the recreated lifestyles. Whether or not the story is true can perhaps be excused by the average non-purist; there are plenty of instances of directors interpreting history to suit their own whims (think Oliver Stone’s JFK, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth).
The characters, too, may be "real" or not: that’s a question for historians to debate, and poetic license in films is quite acceptable. What’s more concerning are some comments made by Jitnukul that the research into the way people lived 300 years ago was done without any assistance from historians. "We intended to do so for fear that a dramatic element of story telling would be destroyed by factual information, and, subsequently, all enjoyment would be lost," he reportedly said. Which is a shame, as one of the strong points of the film seems to be its attention to detail in the way people looked and dressed. Perhaps that explains a slip up by E Tang On, who asks Nai Thong Men whether he’s brushed his teeth today…
The real weakness of Bangrajan, however, is its two-dimensional characters and their unconvincing dialogue. While there is some occasional humor skilfully inserted into the exchanges between the characters, the overall impression is that the characters are neither well-rounded nor believable. Although the characters are based on statues, it’s a shame they took that a bit too far and decided to act like them too.