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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Kingdom of War

June 13th, 2011

Kingdom of War: Part 1 & 2 - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Thai movie industry is in quite a boom time and one of the country's most famous directors is Chatrichalerm Yukol, a.k.a., His Serene Highness Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol. (That's not some crazy ego-trip either. He really is Thai royalty.) In 2007, the first two parts of his The Legend of King Naresuan trilogy were released and became massive hits. At the time they were the most expensive films in the history of Thai cinema and the second of the two films earned such high critical praise that it was Thailand's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007. Now the two films are being released on DVD and Blu-ray, but will the historical epics find an audience here? Or since most audience members here don't have a connection to the history these films talk about, will that be too large a barrier to be drawn in?

The Movie

The film begins in the year 1563 C.E. (common era) with various factions in Southeast Asia battling for control. A new king has risen in Pegu, King Bayinnong, and he led an army of conquest to take over the other kingdoms in the area. He is now pushing to take over the Kingdom of Phitsanulok, ruled by King Thamaracha. King Thamaracha is a brilliant military leader and has thwarted Bayinnong's conquest for a while, despite being at a numerical disadvantage and having to deal with a plague and a famine. King Thamaracha is still hoping to hold off defeat, but word comes that the King of Ayutthaya, King Chakkraphat, has decided not to support his ally in the south and instead is fortifying his capital. Because of this insult, King Thamaracha decides his people will no longer be allied with King Chakkraphat and will instead form an alliance with King Bayinnong. However, to make sure the alliance is maintained, King Bayinnong demands King Thamaracha's son, Ong Dam, a.k.a., Prince Naresuan, will be taken back to Pegu as a royal hostage. (At least they don't sugarcoat the situation with flowery language.) King Bayinnong does swear to raise the prince as if he were the king's own son.

The young Ong Dam shows his strength and courage by refusing to bow down to King Bayinnong when they first meet, which the king finds endearing. After watching King Bayinnong conquer Ayutthaya, Ong Dam returns with King Bayinnong to Hongsawadee, and while there learns how the Siamese captives live and meets an orphan boy with no name. (His parents died before he can remember, so he doesn't know what they called him. He's latter given the name Bunthing.) Ong Dam is sent to a Buddhist monk, Khan Shong, to train in the ways of the warrior. Khan Shong tells him his training will begin the next day at Yodia Temple, but when Ong Dam and Bunthing arrive, they are soundly thwarted by Manechan, the self-appointed gatekeeper of Yodia Temple. In their defense, while they outnumbered Manechan two to one, she must have been all of six years old, so they never really stood a chance.

For most of the rest of the first film, we see these three come of age, as well as the political machinations between the various kingdoms. However, as King Bayinnong becomes more fond of Ong Dam, the other members of Hongsawadee's royal family grow jealous and it becomes clear that On Dam must flea back Ayutthaya.

This is where the first film ends, the second one begins fourteen years after the beginning of the first film. Now Ong Dom goes by Prince Naresuan, and he's a well respected leader of his people, although as we see in the beginning, he's not so well known that leaders of important cities can recognize him by sight. The peace between the Hongsawadee Kingdom and Ayutthaya is threatened after King Bayinnong passes away. The heads of all the servant states to Hongsawadee are ordered to come to the coronation for King Bayinnong's son, Nandabayin. This includes Prince Naresuan, but Prince Naresuan volunteers to go in his place, as King Bayinnong was like a second father to him. It's a happy reunion for Prince Naresuan, Banthing, and Manechan, but Prince Naresuan is warned of dangers in Hongsawadee. He was a rival with Nandabayin, who is now king and it is likely that King Nandabayin will be looking for any excuse to attack Ayutthaya as a result.

When one of the servant states, Khang, refuses to attend the funeral / coronation, King Nandabayin sees this as an insult and decides to attack. Prince Naresuan volunteers the army of Ayutthaya to be part of the attack, to prove his loyalty. When King Nandabayin strategy proves disastrous, it is Prince Sangkhathat's turn to attempt to take the city. Before he can attack, Prince Naresuan scouts the city and discovers a second way in. However, when he tells Prince Sangkhathat, Prince Sangkhathat thinks he is leading them into a trap so he will be the hero and charges forward. He should have listened. When it comes to his turn, Prince Naresuan uses cunning to exploit a weakness and force the people of Khang to surrender.

Instead of seeing this as proof of Prince Naresuan loyalty and value, King Nandabayin sees this as proof that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. How that part of the story plays out is deep into spoiler territory, so we will end the plot synopsis here.

The combined running time of the two films is more than five hours, so it lives up to being an Epic film in that regard. And it's not just long, but huge. It was the most expensive Thai film when it was made and the battle scenes are incredible. However, it starts off slowly. The opening feels stilted, like the filmmakers were unsure how to deliver the necessary historical information in a way that would flow smoothly. There are a lot of flashbacks, a lot of jumping between characters and locations, etc. and this hurt the flow of the first movie. That's not to say the first movie is bad, and there are a lot of things to recommend. The film excels at being an historical epic and things like set design, costumes, etc. are amazing. (I should point out that I have no idea if they are historically accurate or not, so I can't comment there. But even if you have no clue what they should look like, it is still impressive. There are also many fun character moments between the three lead child actors. (I especially liked the introduction of Suchada Chekly, who played the young Manechan in the first film. The way the character completely disregards normal protocol regarding royalty and respect is endearing.)

As for the second film, everything that worked the first time around is back, while most of the problems that were present were diminished, if not eliminated. For instance, the pace picks up and the film flows a lot better. The need for flashbacks is greatly reduced. The battle scenes become much larger, and more frequent. The politics have a much greater impact on the main characters, so it feels more urgent and demands your attention more. There's more room for romance. Watching the two films back-to-back turns a good first part into a great two-part experience.

The Extras

Extras on the first disc include an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and an eleven-minute featurette on the royal lineage of the main characters and the casting processes the director went through to find the right actors. The extras on the second disc start with an eight-minute making of featurette, that's very similar to the first behind-the-scenes featurette on the first disc. There is a two-minute behind-the-scenes on the search for accuracy. Finally, there's a music video.

The Blu-rays are also BD-Live enabled, so you can check out some trailers.

The technical presentation of the movie is excellent, if you take into account the films' production budget. The figure I've seen is 700 million baht, but that might be for both films combined. And since 700 million baht is roughly $23 million American, that's not a whole lot of money, so comparing it to a summer blockbuster would be unfair. The detail level is great (outside of some of the flashbacks, which have an intentionally grainy look). Colors pop, blacks are deep without drowning out too much details, etc. The sound is immersive, especially in the battle scenes.

As for the price, the Blu-ray is actually cheaper than the DVD. In fact, the Two Disc Blu-ray is actually cheaper than buying either part individually.

The Verdict

Kingdom of War: Part 1 & 2 became one of the biggest homegrown hits in Thai movie history, and it deserves this success. If you are a fan of historical epics, especially ones with an Asian flavor, then the DVD or the Blu-ray is worth picking up. And since the film looks and sounds so good in High Definition, while costing significantly less, the latter is clearly the better deal.

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