I am folliclely challenged. I can only grow a scraggly beard. Letting my facial hairs grow out into an uneven bundle of whiskers just makes me look shipwrecked insane, but stand alone I cannot grow a decent moustache or one of those Ahab beards with no moustache. And, it is not that I really like the beard look. I'm just bothered that I don't have the choice to go all Unabomber if I choose. The only time I've ever let grow out was last year when I wanted to be Robinson Crusoe for Halloween.
Anyway, what I'm getting at is that macho facial hair has always won a special place for me in movies. I swear, I'll tune into a Sam Elliot movie just to see if he's got some awesome stache. The lead hero of Bang Rajan (2000), has one hell of a moustache. Even if it is fake, it is still a marvel of manliness. Now, if that seems like a thin thing to hinge ones interest on, lest we forget, there are many actors and actresses who have made careers out of just being pretty faces to look at. So sue me, for some strange reason I get drwn in if that face has some grand hair on it.
Bang Rajan is set in 1765, when the Burmese invaded Siam, which would eventually lead to the formation of Thailand. It tells the story of a small village (Bang Rajan) of valiant common folk who successfully fought off the superior Burmese army and, for a couple of years, kept them from gaining a foothold to take over the larger cities.
When we first meet them, the village's elder and main strategist has been injured in a fight and they need to find a new leader. Though he is noble, second in command Inn (Winai Kraibutr) is not a good replacement because he doesn't have the mind for planning. The logical choice is a scrappy mountain rebel, Chan Nuat-Kheo (Jaran Ngamdee), who has conducted his own hit and run, guerilla war against the Burmese with his small group of fighters.
Chan's first order is to try and obtain cannons from the large cities, but he is denied because the larger Siamese armies fear the village will fall and the cannons will then just go into the hands of the Burmese. Chan puts observation towers into place and sets up a good system of defense, though there is still some resistence to his defensive tactics from the more aggressive villagers, like the local drunk, Tong-Menn (Bin Banleurit), who is a double ax-wielding force of nature on the battlefield.
Really, the story echos the sort of "rah-rah" underdog tale like Seven Samurai and Braveheart. We get to know the villagers, like the young wanna' please fighter, the burly drunk (the Toshiro Mifune role), the family man, and our stalwart (fantastically moustached) leader. The usual setbacks occur, like the men being too headstrong in their desire to fight, going against orders, and putting themselves and the village in danger. The characters are drawn in broad strokes, and the Burmese enemy is very demonized, portrayed as heartless cruel monsters. It is a manly man's movie- lots of fighting, derring-do, and every Bang Rajan man has a tan, Charles Atlas body decorated by tribal tattoos.
The storytelling is predicable and crude, but really this is the kind of old school war film naivete that really sells itself well. By the end when every able-bodied villager (including the women) is taking up arms, be it sword or farm tools, to fight the massive, better equipped army, should win even the most cynical moviegoers over. It draws perfect polar opposites, like the badass Ton-Menn riding on a buffalo against the Horseback riding, armor wearing Burmese. Technically it is a small epic with sometimes clunky and routine dramatics (subplots involve Inn's wife being pregnant in these uncertian times) and plenty of hack and slash, blurry combat. And, of course, there is Jaran Ngamdee's tremendous moustache.
The DVD: Hart Sharp Video. The rental version over at Netflix lists the film as "Oliver Stone Presents: Bang Rajan." Much in the same way Francis Ford Coppola helped distribute The Legend of Suriyothai, Stone had a hand in Bang Rajan's stateside distribution. Anyway, that Netflix Stone-d cut is a mere 71 mins, while this Hart Sharp DVD appears to be the full cut of the film which runs just short of two hours.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Ehhh. I wasnt expecting too much. Most of the Thai transfers I've seen over the past few years seem to suffer from some basic low definition defects. The same goes here, it looks okay, certainly watchable, but it has some basic lack in the big three areas: color, sharpness, and contrast. But, for a budget Thai epic, complete with some sloppy CGI shots, it looks okay. Still, Better elements and a less compressed and compromised transfer would help the film.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0, Thai language with optional English subtitles. When I first heard about the film, (I'm guessing this was the Stone US theatrical cut) word was the subs were terrible, making the characters have cute one-liners. The subs here were fine, much more straightforward. The audio is pretty basic. There are some issues with the dialogue having a few ill-recorded spots. The ambient action has some good thwacks and clashes of steel. Diluting some of the grandeur, the score is a bit low in the mix.
Extras: Absolutely Nothin'.
Conclusion: A b-grade epic, that nonetheless I found pretty enjoyable. It hits all the right notes, and despite not quite living up to better underdog war flicks, Bang Rajan is more than capable of sustaining a good two hours of sweaty, muscular, manly moustache entertainment.
Real shame this disc is so skimpy. The UK release has featurettes and interviews. The disc is okay, but due to the transfer irks and lack of extras, it would make for a good rental or a very casual purchase.