Edge of the Empire, 2010.
Written and Directed by Nirattisai Kaljareuk.
Starring Arnut Rapanit, Lalisa Sontirod and Than Thanakorn.
In 757, the Qin dynasty unleashes its army to impose the emperor’s will upon the free tribes in the Cheung Dao Valley, China, forcing the six Tai tribes (the legendary ancestors of the Thai people) – the Ler, Chiangsair, Khanu, Yuro, Dtai and Thanai, into a futile war. After their defeat, the living remnants of the tribes are scattered across the land and reside in cities under the stewardship of Han overlords.
Based on the novel that won the 1973 John F. Kennedy award for literature, Edge of the Empire sports eye-popping visuals and top draw production values, courtesy of the film’s three years in production. Following completion of principal photography, Edge of the Empire was tweaked and preened to fully embody the sumptuous experience the filmmakers hope to put on screen. And, overall, the film is beautiful, in both gentle and brutal ways.
Many scenes are awash with thousands of digitally rendered butterflies, first seen when we are taken to Ler City twenty years after the opening scenes of enslavement of the six tribes. Ler City serves as a hub for the tribes, but one which is all the time under the watchful eye of the Han governor – Tiewlang. The butterflies in the film are offered up as the nascent hope of the Tai tribes that they will one day be allowed to exist once again as free and autonomous people. And, indeed, the Thai name for the butterfly – Phi Suea, translates as ‘Clothed Spirit.’ It is here that we are first introduced to Lampoon (Than Thanakorn) as he leaps onto a raised platform and duels with numerous opponents wielding wooden practice weapons, soundly besting them all.
This initial fight scene sets the tone for the handling of the action. The fight sequences are tight and punchy, with the action edited and filmed so as to accentuate the up-close violence, with the camera pulling out when a character makes the ubiquitous superhuman glide fifteen feet through the air. As the Qin appointed governor watches on, we are treated to a Mortal Kombat-style scenario, where all the best warriors of the six tribes gather to showcase and hone their skills. Asked by the new military envoy to the area – Libong, if it is wise to allow the tribes people to practice their battle skills, Governor Tiewlang responds that it is better to allow them to do it in the open and fight each other than to force them to practice secretly, away from official eyes.
Military man Libong embodies the cold, imperialist spirit of some of the ruling Qin by denigrating the gathered tribes people as ‘peasants’ whilst Tiewlang strives to handle his charges with a more benevolent approach, the two men mirroring the oscillating attitudes of the ruling class. Tiewlang is soon replaced by a new governor, Litongjia (Praptpadol Suwanbang), who leans very much more towards the oppressive mode of governance, setting the people of Ler City against him and stoking their passions even more against their Qin overlords.
Litongjia is played as an oversexed zealot. He removes anything that could be considered a weapon from the villagers and imposes a harsh new regime on the people. Litongjia is one of the more enjoyable characters because he isn’t saddled with any baggage as his character is designed as a larger than life villain, whose only motivations seem to be his penchant for cruelty and desire to fornicate with pretty much any woman he comes across.
Some of the acting on display, whilst serviceable, doesn’t match up to the grand vision of the film. It is also quite hard to keep up with who is who and their motivations as the cast is quite sprawling and the plot moves at a very fast pace, apart from when some of the characters are killed off. Then we are treated to overwrought funeral scenes that find it hard to pin down any real emotion due to the sheer number of characters in play. It’s understandable that in a film that wants to take on the epic sweep of a story of this magnitude, the writer and filmmakers would want to bolster that feeling with a large cast but the here it just ends up feeling bloated and largely irrelevant.
Whilst the acting may sag in some places, the direction, courtesy of Thai TV veteran Nirattisai “Ta” Kaljareuk, is accomplished and full of flair. Ta easily segues between brutal, close quarters combat, epic battle scenes and artful meditative shots of the rural settings. He is ably assisted by British cinematographer Paul Spurrier, who imbues the film with a flowing beauty, alternated with a sure, hard edge when violence erupts.
Overall, Edge of the Empire is a great visual experience and another exemplary example of Thai filmmaking (which was made for just 3.5 million dollars). The film is worth seeing for its visual impact and deft handling of action but as an historical epic it falls flat because of the sometimes sub-par acting and relatively weak script.