SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Buckle your swashes, folks, we're sailing for Thailand, circa the early 17th century. There, we can expect to find enough action, adventure, melodrama, and magic for an entire trilogy. It'll pop your eyes and maybe race your heart if it doesn't wear you out.
In 1593, we are told, a genius Dutch weaponeer was ambushed at sea while attempting to deliver two Great Cannons to Queen Haiju (Jarunee Suksawas), the strong but fair monarch of Langkasuka. His Chinese apprentice, Lim Kium (Jakrit Pnaichpatikam), washes up in a village of sea gypsies, where his inventions catch the eye of an orphan named Pari. Pari is brave, but angry, leading to Master White Ray (Sorapong Chatree) refusing to teach him the art of Du Lum sea sorcery. Ten years later, Lim is still there, and Pari (Ananda Everingham), now a man, joins him on missions against Black Raven (Winai Kraibutr), a pirate harassing the sea people. Black Raven has teamed with rebel prince Rawai (Ake Oree), whose attempt to assassinate Haiju was barely thwarted by Royal Guard Jarang ("Dan" Chupon Chanprung). Langkasuka needs allies, and if that means engaging combat-minded Princess Ungu (Anna Rees) to the Prince of Pahay, so be it.
Then, in the second act...
Queens of Langkasuka is sprawling, with the sea magic of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy augmented by some palace intrigue, a dash of Star Wars thrown in, and a bunch of muay thai fighting and soapy melodrama to perk up anyone who was feeling bored. And did I mention the ninja pirates? Or that the sunken Great Cannons are guarded by jellyfish stationed there by a Du Lum master, as they can command marine life? Director Nonzee Nimibutr and writer Win Lyovarin pack two or three movies' worth of madness into this film's 133 minutes, and they keep it up right to the end, jamming flashbacks and explanations of the philosophy behind Du Lum in until the film threatens to collapse under the weight. That never quite happens, although the movie could use a little breathing time at the end - all those subplots and relationships merit a little wrapping up, as opposed to what seems like a rush to get us out of the theater. No need to go all Return of the King on us, but throw us some sort of bone!
Those that came for the action may appreciate the quick exit once it's done, and they've certainly gotten their money's worth. Pari and Jarang tend to have armies of pirates to contend with, but they are handy with fists, feet, swords, etc. The fights are slick and bloody, even before considering that the pirates' and sea gypsies' costumes leave a lot of bare skin for swimming, so it's not like these guys can be padded much. It builds to a great big land-sea battle at the end, where there may not be as much hand-to-hand (barring treachery!), but the cannons and mystic control of marine life certainly get a work out.
That's one of the most CGI-intensive sections of the film, and the visual effects are pretty good, considering that they probably received a fraction of the resources that a Hollywood film of similar scale would have thrown at it. Nimibutr uses them (and meticulous design everywhere) to populate a striking world, with palaces, pirate ships, a gorgeous sea gypsy village, and hidden islands, all populated by fierce, elaborately tattooed people. Even when the graphics are a little dodgy, the fish, jellies, snakes, etc., swimming in formation at the behest of their masters are majestic and even thrilling.
The cast is nice, too - Ananda Everingham is not just intense, but sells the idea of Du Lum by making Pari seem like an extension of the sea. Chupon Chanprung is a fine, stoic hero as Jarang, and a great fighter besides. Jakrit Pnaichpatikam gives Lim both the restless genius and thirst for revenge he needs, while Jarunee Suksawas and Anna Rees are wonderful as Queen Haiju and Princess Ungu, respectively tempered and raw steel. The villains could be better, but they're also written kind of thin.
I imagine that's in part because Nimibutr might not figure on doing another fantasy epic, and wound up cramming all he could into this one. Like a delicious but too-large meal, it delights the senses, even if it does threaten to overwhelm.