Monday, February 26, 2007

The Star of Siamese History

Every nation needs heroes, some historical figure who embodies the nation’s essence. Italy has Guiseppi Garibaldi, and America has George Washington – and Thailand has King Naresuan.

The story of King Naresuan, who liberated Siam from Burma in the early 17th century has been told many times, in books, oral histories, poems, murals, statuary - and now on film.

Thais has been immersed in their country’s history through the three-part epic The Legend of Naresuan which will run for a total of more than nine hours. The first installment opened in mid-January; the third and last is timed to open on the King’s birthday in December.

I have been fascinated by the debate over the historical accuracy of the script and scenes that has played out in the newspapers since the film’s release. That seems to belie the notion that Thais don’t care that much about their country’s history.

King Naresuan ruled Siam (actually the Kingdom of Ayutthaya) from 1590 to 1605, which makes him a contemporary of England’s Queen Elizabeth. King Naresuan died two years after Elizabeth, though he was much younger that the Queen.

The Elizabethan age, however, is copiously documented in histories, diaries, official documents and letters, not to mention the plays of William Shakespeare. Though it was 400 years ago, the era seems so vivid as to be almost yesterday.

By contrast, King Naresuan comes across as a semi-legendary figure, more like King Arthur. The director, M C Chatrichalerm Yukol, himself says that the film is a “blend of history, plausibility and imagination”.

Indeed, much of the film has no real historical foundation, as the director freely admits. In one of the more dramatic scenes of part one King Naresuan’s elder sister, Princess Suphankalaya, sacrifices herself to the King of Burma to gain her brother’s release.

It is a good film drama except that the princess appears nowhere in the Ayutthaya Chronicles. Nor is there said to be a record of King Naresuan being taken into Burmese captivity. Does that mean it is anti-historical? Not necessarily.

The problem with all of Thai history before the 19th century is that so little reliable source material survives. History was written on palm leaves, which were then recopied as the leaves degraded. Each time the chronicles were copied the history was “improved” to make certain kings appear more heroic, but in doing so the writers introduced inaccuracies.

Of course, Thailand isn’t the only country where history is sometimes “improved”. The first biography of George Washington introduced the wholly fictional account of the young Washington chopping down the cherry tree and confessing: “I cannot tell a lie.”

Much Thai history was lost in eternal wars with neighbors. In the 1767 sacking of the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya, the conquering Burmese used the royal library as fuel to melt gold off the images of Buddha.

Siamese history is, in parts, better recorded in the annals of Burmese kings and Chinese and Vietnamese emperors, who generally paint an unflattering picture of the villainous Thais.

Some of the best sources are Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit reports to their superiors in Rome. A few Dutch and French adventurers also wrote accounts, but these are often inaccurate too, though often more reliable than Thai sources. But they were all written after King Naresuan died, sometimes as much as a half century later.

Chan Noi has an interesting column in The Nation newspaper detailing how the reputation of King Naresuan has waxed and waned depending on the state that Thailand was in. Typically, he has gained in stature when Thailand felt it was under siege.

The last big revival, Chan Noi writes, was in the 1960s when Thailand felt threatened by communist insurgencies in neighboring countries and at home. “The palace and the army looked to King Naresuan as a great historical symbol of Thailand’s ability to defy its enemies. Statues of the monarch were erected all over Thailand in places historically associated with his name.”

So what does the The Legend of King Naresuan’s release at this point in Thailand’s history say about the state of the country? One might say that the generals who run the country probably are not unhappy over the strong nationalist message that the films convey.

It would be a considerable stretch, however, to suggest that the films were in anyway designed to support the coup makers. This is, after all, the most expensive Thai movie ever made. It has the proverbial cast of thousands, expensive costumes and props, even 10 trained elephants.

Clearly it wasn’t something cobbled together in the four months between the September 19 coup and the January 11 opening.

But The Legend of King Naresuan is not just another action movie either. It is no coincidence that the first installment opened on Army Day and that the last one will screen on the King Bhumibol’s birthday on December 5..

The director even chose a rank amateur, a handsome serving cavalry officer named Major Wanchana, to play the lead role (he makes his appearance in the second installment that opened in early February – in the first episode Narusuan is a youth) because he was something of a blank slate.

The image of the Star of Siam’s history is not to be sullied by the usual theater crowd tittle-tattle that might surround a more famous and experienced actor.


Post a Comment

<< Home