Chatreechalerm Yukol's historical epic, Kingdom Of War, is essentially a two film version of Thailand's own Prince Naresuan. Set in the 1500s, the first film begins when Naresuen (Wanchana Sawatdee) is taken from Ayutthaya to Burma, a hostage of the king (Sarunyu Wongkrachang) meant to be used to gain leverage against the people of Ayutthaya. While in Naresuen's care, he's trained and taught by a group of monks who teach to him the art of war but also instill in him a value system that he would carry with him throughout his life. He also befriends an orphan named Bunting (Jirayu La-Ongmanee) and a female servant who works in the temple named Manechan (Taksaorn Paksukcharern) and as these three young people move closer to adulthood they become the closest of friends.
While the three friends are growing up and going about their lives, King Bayinnaung is essentially rallying the troops loyal to him from his territory and other allied territories as things are starting to become difficult for him in that there are those within his midst who would like to take control of the realm for themselves.
The second film cuts ahead in time by a few years and catches up with Naresuan (now played by an older actor, Wanchana Sawatdee) after the Burmese king has died. He pays his respects to the fallen king and then travels back to his homeland where political complications have resulted in some tensions that will soon lead to war. Naresuan, having learned from Bayinnaung and his monk teachers, decides to rally his allies and stand up against those forces from outside his land who would take control of it for their own reasons - that is, until Naresuan learns the hard way that not everyone that he has allied himself with can be completely trusted and so he pulls the Thai people out of Burma and takes up arms against them to create a kingdom truly independent of Burmese rule.
While the films were released separately they work together in conjunction quite well to tell a complete story, and it'll probably make more sense to most viewers to watch them back to back despite the fact that they add up to a pretty lengthy running time of over five hours in total. This would all be fine if the movie were consistently engaging for the duration but sadly it's not. That's not to say this isn't an impressive bit of moviemaking, because there was obviously a lot of care and attention paid to the production as a whole, but the films suffer from erratic pacing and long, slow stretches of various characters discussing strategy and intent before actually showing us the battle scenes themselves. When we do shift from talk to action, things pick up and are quite impressive, though the fact that so many of the central characters stay out of the battles themselves does result in them having less impact than they should. Historically speaking, this is likely how things did go down and it's quite impressive that Yukol and his team worked in so many bit part players simply because they did seemingly play a role in the events that inspired the film, but it results in a lot of time spent with people and characters who don't wind up meaning a whole lot to the audience.
When the film focuses on Naresuan himself it's a pretty interesting story but it gets bogged down in so many subplots and introduces so many characters that it can get confusing. Granted, the film wasn't intended primarily for a western audience and it probably means a whole lot more to Thai audiences who will certainly have much more familiarity with the story and the characters who populate it than anyone else., but even trying to keep that in mind it both parts of the story suffer from pacing and character development issues.
Thankfully these flaws don't completely sink the ship. The film looks great from start to finish and it's full of impressive costumes, beautiful sets and excellent camerawork. The score is well timed and at times completely moving on its own, outside of how it ties in to the visuals, while the performances are generally pretty decent and quite spirited. The second film, understandably, builds off of what happens in the first one and so it has noticeably more emphasis on action and the 'final battle' than the first half could, as such it provides more excitement than the earlier chapter. Despite the film's mammoth running time, however, it ends so quickly that it leaves a lot of loose ends. More emphasis on character development and tighter pacing would have made this an excellent film - as it stands, it's impressive in certain ways but not all that it could have been.
Kingdom Of War looks good on Magnolia's Blu-ray thanks to the AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen 1080p presentation - each of the two parts sitting comfortably on their own BD50 disc. Aside from a couple of really minor specks that are visible periodically, the source material used for the transfer appears to have been in excellent condition, so there are no print damage issues to note. The picture is consistently clean and stable and shows good detail throughout and nice color reproduction as well, though there are some scenes that have been tweaked in post for a period feel, which might irk some. Close up shots show the best detail but even medium and long distance shots are impressive and show off the intricacies of the set design and costumes as well as the locations used for the film. Black levels aren't always perfect, sometimes they look just a bit too light, but aside from that, the image is, overall, quite nice.
The Thai language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which comes with optional subtitles in English SDH, English and Spanish, is good but not great. The levels are pretty well balanced but there are some scenes where the dialogue is just a bit too weak sounding and it does occasionally get lost in the background sound effects and music. This isn't a constant problem, but it is a periodic one. Surround channels are used very effectively during the battle sequences so there's plenty of channel separation and front to back pans that are audible throughout the movie which add to the fun. Bass response is good but not quite as powerful as it could have been. Overall though, this is a good mix, even if it did leave a bit of room for improvement.
Extras are spread across the two discs in the set as follows:
The eight minute Behind The Scenes Of Kingdom Of War offers some welcome insight into the historical accuracy that the filmmakers were after in terms of locations, costumes and set design and it gives us a look at how they went about building the sets that we see in the movie. Royal Lineage And Characters is an eleven minute piece that includes interviews with the cast members who discuss their characters. This is a handy piece that puts a lot of the relationships featured in the film's storyline into perspective and it offers us a peek into the heads of the cast and how they approached their respective roles. A trailer for the film and trailers for a few other Magnolia releases are also included on the disc.
The second disc kicks off with the eight minute The Making Of The Kingdom Of War which offers cast and crew interviews, behind the scenes footage, clips of the sets being built, and some details on the history on which the film was based. A two minute Behind The Scenes segment is too short to be of much substance but it does include a brief interview with the writer and some quick interviews with a few cast members who discuss their experience or lack thereof and how they landed their parts in the film. Closing out the extras on the second disc are the same trailers that were on the first disc and a four minute music video for a song featured in the film.
All of the extras on both discs are in standard definition except for the trailers for other Magnolia titles. The discs both contain menus and chapter stops, a bookmarking feature, and BD-Live capability.
Magnolia release of Kingdom Of War Parts 1 & 2 looks pretty good and sounds pretty good but turns out to be surprisingly light on extras. As far as the movie itself goes, as beautiful as it is to look at and as impressive a production it is on a technical and visual level, it drags and drags in spite of some decent performances and no shortage of spectacle. If you're into historical foreign epics, you'll certainly appreciate what the filmmakers have accomplished here, just be prepared for a script that meanders when it needn't and some long, slow stretches in between the action scenes. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.