Pack your quinine and mosquito netting, and we'll take a trip to exotic 16th-century Siam. Multiple small kingdoms fight sporadic battles, motivated and controlled by a complex web of intermarriage and opportunity. Looming over this smiling land is the evil Burma, ready to swoop down and carry everyone away.
Beautiful young Princess Suriyothai (M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi) is in love with her cousin Piren (Chatchai Plengpanich) but betrothed to Prince Tien (Sarunyoo Wongkrchang). (Both seem like really nice guys, which makes for a nice twist on the typical frustrated-royal-love story.) In order to maintain the fragile political balance, the princess agrees to marry Tien, and a story is set in motion that seethes with palace intrigues, poisoning, assassinations and epic battle scenes.
A period of peace and prosperity degenerates as the U-Thong clan usurps the throne from the ruling Phra Ruang clan. Chief concubine Srisudachan (Mai Charoenpura) poisons the king and wangles the top job for her lover, Lord Warawongsa (Johnny Afone), who leads a corrupt and incompetent regime. Turmoil and death dog Suriyothai as she looks out for herself, her children, and the greater good of the kingdom.
This enormous movie spans decades in her life, and sitting in front of the screen, you, too, will feel as if you have aged. While director Chatri Chalerm Yukol's cinematography is stunning, the women beautiful and the battles violently gory, you'll struggle to follow the complications of palace life. Good note-taking will complement your preshow studies, helping you keep track of the four clans as they vie for control in a land ravaged by poisoning, smallpox and the possibility of elephant accidents.
The battle scenes are staffed by vast numbers of modern-day Thai military, and they do yeoman's work when called upon to die, each shedding blood in a most realistic manner. The deaths are quite creative and the special effects superb: Arrows pierce necks, a man is speared to death by a group of Amazon palace guards, children are bludgeoned and two incredibly realistic beheadings make your teeth wince. When battles lull, long processionals fill the screen. And nearly everyone enters and exits rooms on their knees, lest they upstage the king.
After an hour or so, I gave up on following the plot details and just watched this movie's over-the-top portrayal of ancient southeastern Asian life. There's a cast of thousands, and not one of them is computer-generated. With excellent acting, amazing sets and production standards as high as any I've seen, the movie has only one real problem: Once you're lost in the jungle, it's a very long way out. Pack in extra rations when you buy your ticket.