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Realtime >> Friday September 19, 2008

Pirates of the Gulf

Five years in the making, with one pirate ship sunk and 150 million baht spent, Nonzee Nimibutr's Queens of Langkasuka braves rough history to open the Bangkok International Film Festival next week


Action star Chupong Changprung in Queens of Langkasuka. The sea gypsy village, built for the shoot of Queens of Langkasuka on the eastern coast.
Jakrit Panichpatikam, better known as the star of the Thai shooting team, makes his acting debut as Lim Kium.
Nonzee Nimibutr

Originally the film was called Queens of Pattani. It was conceived as a two-movie franchise, with sketches of Islamic culture, historical innuendo, and 16th century Ayutthaya envoys lurking as villains. Despite the fancy of loin-clothed pirates and a stingray-riding sea gypsy, the script, out of honest curiosity, initially hinted at the obscure chapters of Siamese history that dealt with the ancient kingdom of the southern peninsula.

But for better or worse, that won't be the new Nonzee Nimibutr movie we'll eventually get to see.

Now the film has the less sensitive title, Queens of Langkasuka. The Thai title, however, is less majestic: Puen Yai Jom Salat, translated as "the cannons of the lord of pirates". It's no longer a two-film package, but one with a climactic ending of a riotous sea battle involving cannons, sorcery, aquatic mammals and airborne warriors. History, meanwhile, is buried beneath the sets and costumes. After five years in the making, Queens of Langkasuka was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month and will have its Thailand gala screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival (BKK IFF) on Sept 26. It will go on release nationwide on Oct 23.

"It's a relief," says Nonzee. "I was spent. The making of this movie went through many ups and downs. It took five years of my life. I'm happy with it, and now I can move on."

Nonzee, who's often credited as the man who lit the torch of New Thai Cinema with 2499 Anthapan Krong Muang in 1997 and Nang Nak in 1999, as well as this year's recipient of the Ministry of Culture's Silapathorn Award, first became fascinated with the idea of a historical film set in the South when he was shooting his previous film, Okay Betong, in Yala . His research into the rich chronicles of the peninsula, before it became part of Siam, revealed a period when Pattani was an independent state ruled by a succession of four queens. Legends and stories about marauding buccaneers roaming the Gulf waters during that century added to the material. Then Nonzee took note of the brand of sorcery - or rather, grassroots wisdom - practiced by southern fishermen and sea gypsies. It's called Du-lum, and it involves, at the basic level, the ability to locate fish underwater by listening to the sound they make, and at its fantastic extreme, to communicate with all sea creatures through sonic vibration.

Throwing all of this into a cauldron, Nonzee approached SEA-Write Award-winning novelist Win Lyovarin to pen the screenplay for him (see sidebar). Win, a keen movie fan who'd never written a screenplay before, did extensive research of his own and fused the pirates, wizardry, history and folk stories into the original script, a kaleidoscope of martial arts fantasy and marine adventures encased in a historical mould.

"It was true that I intended the movie to be more historical than it now is," says Nonzee. "That's what interested me in the beginning - the colourful peoples who lived in and traded with Pattani, and sure, the role of Ayutthaya in those years.

"But during shooting and editing, I had to make a choice, and in the end I chose to focus more on the fantasy than the history. I think that's what the spirit of the story is about."

From his track record, Nonzee is not what we may call a topical director - his strength is not in exploring hard issues, and his treatment of history usually borders on nostalgia. His interest in the South is genuine, though other conditions didn't permit him to keep his original vision intact. Nonzee didn't elaborate, but it was learned that during the shoot, when he still called the film Queens of Pattani, he received two official letters from a government bureau that supervises the southern region. The letters simply asked him questions about the film, but the content constituted, it could be assumed, a warning.

This despite the fact that the movie had long been publicised as historical fantasy, not historical realism. Still, with a large budget involved - the film cost nearly 150 million baht to make - the director felt the concern of his investor, Sahamongkol Film Intl. The intensity of the southern strife in 2004 and 2005 also compounded his worries. And along the way, Queens of Pattani became Queens of Langkasuka, named after the kingdom that preceded Pattani. Several allusions to Ayutthaya didn't appear in the final script.

"I didn't feel upset. It's still the movie I wanted to make from the start, only that certain things had to be sacrificed, just like in every film," says Nonzee. "From the beginning, I knew that this would be a film heavy on action and special effects - and that's what the finished film is. What took us so long to finish the movie was not the problem with the historical aspects, but the delay in production due to several complications.

"I believe it's possible for Thai filmmakers to make films about the South, only that we have to approach it carefully, and from a certain angle," Nonzee adds. "In fact I've seen one or two good scripts about the subject, and I sincerely hope they will get made into movies."

The delay he talked about was caused by a gamut of glitches, from the illness of his investor, Somsak Techaratanaprasert, to the bizarre incident when a pirate ship built for the set immediately sunk when it touched the water. "My art director, Ake Eiamchuen, built this great ship for the shoot," Nonzee recalls. "But I guess we weren't shipbuilders. We were only concerned about the aesthetic look of it, so when we launched the ship into the water, we watched helplessly as it sunk, right before our eyes. Man, that ship cost us over a million baht!"

Of course they salvaged the ship for the shoot (without putting it in the water again). But then storms ravaged his set in Sri Racha and stalled the shoot. And finally, the film was holed up for a whole year at Blue Fairy studio where a hundred technicians put computer-generated effects into the frames. This was another area where Nonzee had to tread carefully: Thai films are notorious for substandard computer effects, and the idea of making a big epic film that relied heavily on digital wizardry made observers suspicious from the start.

For Nonzee, this wasn't an issue. He explained that Thai digital craftsmen are skilled beyond question, but it's poor management that usually makes most homegrown movies fail to render convincing digital effects. "You have to shoot a movie with an effects supervisor at your side, but you can't shoot a film normally then go to you digital department later and tell them to make somebody fly," said Nonzee. "And you have to give them time to work. You can't tell them you want everything in two months. With Queens of Langkasuka, they told me they'd need eight months to finish the effects, so I gave them a year.

"It could always be better, but the result, for me, is satisfying."

Queens of Langkasuka was screened unofficially at the Cannes Film Market in May, where international distributors thought the film a tad too long at 140 minutes. Still the same version went on show in Venice where critics gave mixed responses. For local release, however, the film will be cut down to around 120 minutes. Given its scope and ambition, it will still be one of the highlights of Thai cinema in 2008, though, unfortunately, it's unlikely to inspire the discussion of Pattani and Siam as it might have. Something's gotta give, yes, especially in the rough terrain of New Thai Cinema Nonzee once helped revive.

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