dir: Prachya Pinkaew
[img_assist|nid=1021|title=Can't act. Can fight.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=259]
The main point that’s supposed to be in Ong Bak’s favour is that it’s a brawling action film which rejects the use of CGI and the wire-work that has become (apparently) sickening in its ubiquity. In other words, the fights are supposed to be more grounded and realistic; none of this airy-fairy floating on bamboo crap for our beef jerky munching friends.
When you think about it, on its own it isn’t really that much of a selling point. Are there lots of people hearing about or seeing the ads to flicks that are coming out, who see the edited highlights of people perched atop a mountain top or balancing on top of a lake having-at one another with swords, icicles and passing school buses, see the films and then say ‘Wait one gosh-darned moment: this prancing Asian malarkey ain’t my cup of Bonox?’
Surely if there’s a bunch of people that hate that style of genre filmmaking there’s also at least two other groups of people: a) the ones that are the market for these fantastical delights who are grateful and appreciative and b) people who don’t really go in for these kinds of films, and choose as consumers to exercise their George W Bush-given right to NOT purchase a ticket. It’s basic economics, by my reckoning. Niche marketing, even.
That being said, a flick like Ong Bak, whilst a throw-back to an earlier era of trashy cinema, is somewhat refreshing. The story has clichés so, um cliché that you wonder how people can still use them and face themselves in the mirror each morning.
These problems and concerns are but autumn leaves in the path of a hurricane. That hurricane’s name is Tony Jaa. Tony is one of the genuinely most amazing actual martial artists that I’ve seen in a long time. The angle used in promotion about abandoning the use of CGI and strings (though that’s not entirely true) are totally justified, and that’s because this guy is amazing, and they’ve found some Thai guys (and even a few Anglos) willing to take kicks and punches from this man that look like they could smash the skull of a bull elephant.
The Matrix films showed us, if nothing else, how the ‘magic’ of cinema can make fairly pointless people (non-fighters) look good. Ong Bak shows us that some people don’t need all that crap to look fantastic.
This film’s no second coming or anything, it’s not Jesus 2: The Revenge. The plot is so tenuous that it makes other tenuous things look, um, less tenuous. It resets the scale on tenuousness. But I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that these flicks usually don’t suffer from having inane or non-existent plots as long as enough shit gets kicked, punched or elbowed out of the right people.
Tony is an expert at the gentle art of Muay Thai, what we know as kickboxing. There’s an emphasis on elbows, knees and close fighting, as opposed to the more extravagant and flamboyant styles that generally look good on camera. Rather than what fights actually look like, which is two drunken morons punching each other’s heads in, or two scrubbers pulling each other’s hair.
Tony isn’t, however, a great actor. Neither was Bruce Lee, Jet Li, most people called Lee (except for Christopher Lee) and many of the greats in the fight game. He also has this high-pitched voice which flies up a few more octaves when he’s simulating anger as well. It’s all still good though, because when he strips down and displays his art for the rest of us to see, there’s no doubting that he’s a star. To quote the Swedish character from He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, ‘He is really very fit.’
The purpose of the film, like the purpose of all films that aren’t arthouse flicks, is, I guess to make money, but there’s slightly more going on here. Whilst it’s not the first film to be exported from Thailand, it’s the first fight film of theirs that I’ve gotten to see, and easily the best straight-ahead martial arts film I’ve seen in a while. It’s not a particularly beautiful, deep or meaningful film, but what it sets out to do it does right. Mostly.
Ting (Tony Jaa) lives in a dirt poor peasant village. They have a statue of Buddha that they treat as a local deity, from which the movie gets its name. A no-good rascal called Don decides to steal the statue’s head as a gift to a creepy crime lord who speaks without the benefit of a larynx. The peasants are united in their desire for local hero Ting to go to the Big Bad City in order to retrieve the head. For once, someone is going to Bangkok to bring back some head, rather than just get a lot of it for extremely economical prices.
Ting, being a simple lad, is not wise to the ways of townie folk or the dangers of Bangkok, so the story has to supply two characters who first exploit him and then help him, George and Muay (a girl with a voice that could be used to drill through concrete). Ting’s a single minded fellow, so most any of his scenes involve dialogue like ‘Where is Ong Bak’s head? Take me to Ong Bak’s head. Are we going to Ong Bak’s head? Is this the way’ etc etc. I fink you gets the idea.
The story however has to throw in a bunch of reasons to get Ting to show off his incredible physical prowess and his desire to belt fifteen shades of shit out of people. If it didn’t then it’d be nothing more than a film about a guy that wants some head, finds some head, then goes home satisfied. I’ll be reviewing that film a little later. So he gets attacked by goons, hired goons, gets chased which all necessitates the kinds of acrobatic set pieces that Jackie Chan became renowned for before he went all Hollywood, and gets forced into fight-type situations against his will.
See, Ting’s also a man of peace. He doesn’t want to fight, but the cruel corrupt world keeps putting him in increasingly complicated situations from which the only way to extricate himself seems to require the extreme crushing of his enemies. Your heart has to go out to a guy like that.
When the first of the fighting has begun, which is a fair way into the movie, your energy level and interest will jump up by a factor of around a thousand. From a level of being quiet pedestrian it kind of goes ballistic. The choreography is amazing and the action is bone-crunchingly
Tony Jaa is astounding in his ability to perform incredible martial arts moves and convince stunt guys to take the punishment he gleefully metes out. The fights are at first short and brutal, but they increase in terms of their elaborateness as the tale progresses. He becomes a local hero at a local underground ‘fight club’ (that’s what they called it, at least in the subtitles), fighting against from what I could tell were Americans and Australians for the honour of Thailand and Muay Thai kickboxing. Or for some spring rolls, I’m not 100% sure. It was amusing to me to have an Australian guy pretending to be really tough and then watching him get his arse handed to him by a guy who fights like a cross between an angry ballerina and a Tasmanian devil on steroids and amphetamines. Does anyone fear or resent Australians in South East Asia or anywhere else for that matter? How much of a terrifying spectacle does the prospect of an Australian present to people anyway? ‘Be wary of the Australians’, some wizened old sage should say, ‘for they will throw your shrimps onto the barbie’.
A terrifying thought indeed. The opponents don’t matter. The plot doesn’t matter, all that matters is that Ting is so frighteningly tremendous a fighter that he pretty much carries the flick on his slender but oh so muscly shoulders. There are kicks and contortions of the human body that I’d never imagined possible. There are ways of a person spinning elegantly through the air that I could never have imagined and still can’t believe that I saw. He’s fucking amazing.
The flick, I still have to admit, isn’t anything special apart from the fights. But what great fights they are. These aren’t like watching drunken bogans or outer suburb wideboys belting each other into comas out the front of the Casino on a Saturday night, nor are they like watching two scrags try to scratch each other’s eyes out on the dance floor. These are some of the best violent interactions I’ve seen in a long time outside of the quality violence that Hong Kong used to offer. But still, the flick reeks of B-movie from beginning to end. It’s almost naïve. It’s almost as coy and without pretence as Charlotte’s Web. That is, if everyone on the farm could fight like whirling dervishes.
All of these problems are as dust motes in Buddha’s compassionate eye. It’s still an incredibly fun flick. Of the vast array of crap that people invariably tell you to just watch it and just switch your brain off, which makes me at least want to throttle them the way that irredeemable child abuser Homer Simpson strangles his poor son Bart, this is superior and greater fun that those. It’s a good first taste of what the Thai fight flick people and Tony Jaa are capable of. It’s definitely something to build on.
It’s probably the only film I’ve ever heard of that has a buddha ex machina in it as well. That’s got to be worth something. Probably one to wait for on DVD (if you can somehow contain yourselves after my spirited support for it), but goddamn it, with a few beers or sherries in your bellies, I bet you’ll find it fun.
7 skulls you wish you knew how to pulverise with the tip of your pinky toe out of 10
Big Bear: ‘Come on! Fuck Muay Thai!’ - Ong Bak