An epic poem truly deserving of the term, Phra Aphai Mani consists of some 30,000 lines of mythological adventure, bizarre love affairs, life lessons and general nuttiness. It follows, in great detail, the exiled titular prince and his younger brother, who must go to the ends of the earth to regain their rightful kingdom. It took its author, the 19th-century Thai royal poet and UNESCO honoree Sunthorn Phu, over 20 years to put the finishing touches on the twisty, intergenerational tale (although to be fair, he was getting drunk and thrown in jail an awful lot), but the result continues to exert a strong influence across Thai literature and culture. With that legacy, plus all the battles and magic and stuff, you’d think the colorful saga would be ideal fodder for films, but, curiously, many of the movies inspired by Phu’s respected classic, and all those seen outside of Thailand, have focused on one small character, Sudsakorn, and his relatively small part in the story.
Sudsakorn is one of five children fathered by Phra Aphai Mani in the original poem, the result of an inter-species tryst with a beautiful mermaid (which isn’t so bad considering his half-brother Sinamudr has a bloodthirsty sea-giantess for a mother). When his father gets in a tough spot during his quest to reclaim the throne, Sudsakorn embarks on an archetypal hero’s journey. He tames the Ma Nin Mangkorn (a sort of dragon-fish-horse hybrid) as his steed and says goodbye to his mother, prepared for the hardships ahead by a kind old yogi, who bestows upon him a magic staff. Along the way he encounters ghosts who attempt to drag him to an early grave and is tricked, robbed and nearly murdered by the treacherous wizard Fakir (whose constant nudity maybe should have been a clue that he wasn’t entirely on the level), but eventually Sudsakorn is rescued and enlists the help of a friendly king and his children, who contribute their might to his father’s campaign.
Again, while crucial, Sudsakorn’s involvement is merely a single chapter in the overall story, but that hasn’t stopped film producers from latching on to the character. The first adaptation to get any real attention outside Thailand was 1979’s The Adventure of Sudsakorn, which holds the distinction of being the first and only cel-animated feature in the country’s history. At the time, thanks to a lack of funds and available equipment, animation was deemed too costly and complicated compared to live action productions, but visionary animator Payut Ngaokrachang didn’t let that stop him. Building his own gear from spare parts and WWII scrap metal, Payut began the project with a staff of 100, but as funds evaporated, that number dwindled to nine, and the director was forced to take on the lion’s share of the minutely detailed work himself, ruining his vision in the process. His effort paid off though; the film is bold, lyrical and funny, but has unfortunately never seen a quality video release.
No doubt directly inspired in part by Payut’s cartoon magnum opus, the live action Legend of Sudsakorn saw a limited international release in 2006. In some markets, though, it was retitled Mummy’s Island despite a noticeable lack of mummies (Messed-Up Butterfly Monster Island would have been more accurate, but probably wouldn’t look good on a poster). Boasting ridiculously high levels of hammy B movie acting and more cheesy CGI effects than you can shake a stick at, this version somehow manages to be more weirdly hallucinatory, but just as much of a family friendly romp, one foulmouthed naked wizard not included. In the end, that’s probably how Sudsakorn became the breakout film star Phra Aphai Mani; his segment is mostly an easily digestible fairy tale, less about politics and deviants getting their kicks with sea-giantesses and more about kid-friendly adventure, and thus more likely to turn a profit. Yet while it’s not the whole story, these brief glimpses into Phu’s surreal epic leave lasting impression.