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Fighting for the flag
A region 2 DVD review of BORN TO FIGHT / KERD MA LUI by Slarek
 

If you're a fan of martial arts cinema then you will already be aware that the genre is undergoing geographical relocation, signalled by star Tony Jaa, director Prachya Pinkaew and the terrific Ong-Bak. But what am I saying, you don't just know that, you've already bought the DVD and perhaps even busted your elbow trying to imitate Jaa's extraordinary fighting skills. You may even have checked out The Bodyguard looking for confirmation that this was no generic one-off and been left disappointed by the wire work and lightweight silliness that Ong-Bak was so successfully shaking off. Most of all, though, you've been waiting for a film to follow up on Ong-Bak's extraordinary fight choreography, jaw-dropping stunt work and sheer physical brutality. With that in mind and with Jaa and Pinaew's own follow-up film Tom yum goong not yet released in the UK, the arrival of Born to Fight seems rather well timed.

Criticising martial arts cinema for simplistic plotting and characterisations is a little like complaining about weak dialogue in a porn film, but Born to Fight is on even wobblier ground than usual here, with the story functioning only to get the characters into conflict and taking the usual generic binary oppositions to almost ludicrous extremes. The good guys are a mixture of poor, simple villagers and good-hearted athletes who have come to hand out dolls and fluffy animal toys to the local children, the bad guys a bunch of murderous drug lords who kill anything they see and plan to wipe out Bangkok with a thermo-nuclear missile just for the hell of it. When they invade the village with the intention of taking its inhabitants hostage in order to secure the release of their boss fellah (seen captured in the opening sequence), they mercilessly slaughter half the inhabitants before rounding up the remaining unfortunates, including the visiting athletes, a few of whom they kill on air so that the watching government officials know they mean business. They are led by a bad tempered, scar-faced commander who makes most Bond villains look rather civilised by comparison.

Adding to the mix is a streak of bleary-eyed patriotism so sentimentalist that I, for one, was glad I hadn't just eaten a big meal. If you want to put it in context, try to imagine a group of American or British sports stars who are prompted to fight against their captors after standing and singing The Star Spangled Banner or God Save the Queen as tears of national pride pour down their faces. That's right, you'd puke. It never lets up, either, with slow motion shots of the national flag being carried through the battle and a final fight kicked in to action when a seemingly defeated warrior takes patriotic inspiration from a fallen coin of the realm.

Equally untranslatable is the use of top national athletes in key roles – the very idea of the likes of David Beckham, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Tim Henman doing battle with a terrorist army in the name of Queen and country should send shudders down most sensitive spines. It only works at all here for a western audience because of our relative unfamiliarity with the athletes in question, rendering them no different from any other young action stars.

So the story blows, the characters are simplistic and the nationalism runs rampant, but what about the action? Ah, now that's where Born to Fight begins to justify its ticket price. Opening on a police operation that goes violently wrong, the film lurches into an explosive truck chase peppered with astonishing leaps and falls (one particularly alarming tumble sees a member of the stunt crew miss violent death by inches), on the way throwing in nods to John Woo and climaxing in a no doubt deliberate reference to the opening of Jackie Chan's Police Story. Even as we move into sentimental claptrap territory, we all know this is just a preamble to more of the same.

The first shift arrives in shockingly violent style, announced by a single unexpected gunshot and an explosive neck wound, and quickly developing into an almost Mai Lai-style massacre in which the invaders are sketched as both viciously amoral and technologically advanced, the flipside of the simple villagers they are laying waste to. As the survivors get all dewy-eyed with national pride, the invading terrorists are set up for the kicking of their lives, and once this starts it just never lets up, driven along by a fast-paced but typically off-the-peg electronic score and a determination to relentlessly assault the viewer with action until the closing scenes. The novelty factor here is supplied by the athlete stars, who fight using their sporting specialities, whether it be football, parallel bars, balance beam, pole vaulting or even muay thai boxing. It actually works pretty well, providing fights that blend acrobatic elegance with a full contact brutality that looks like becoming a Thai martial arts movie signature. It even provides a Shaolin Soccer-style moment of (perhaps unintentional) comedy when a football is used to remove a guard from a watch tower (a very rare use of CGI), all the more effective for being done completely in wide shot.

Make no mistake, this is a violent film. As the battle rages, villagers continue to be slaughtered in such impossible numbers that I began wondering where the cloning machine was hidden (I swear there are far more killed than there were in the village in the first place and more survivors at the end than there were hostages at the midway stage). Individual fights and stunts are wince-inducing in their abuse of the human body, and just everyone is prepared to take on and destroy a bad guy for the motherland, including an old man, a very young girl, and a one-legged man who pivots spectacularly on his crutch to deliver a head-spinning kick. There are a fair number of references to other Eastern action films, especially the work of Jackie Chan and John Woo, with an attempt to top a famous sequence in the latter's Hard Boiled with a long, superbly choreographed hand-held shot in which the protagonist makes his way through the village fighting, shooting and blowing up enemies, as well as being assaulted and blown up by them in turn.

Its all pretty exhausting stuff, and while it does feel ragged and over-sentimental and largely unsubtle, the frenetic pace and sometimes astonishing physicality of the action, not to mention the darkly toned nature of much of the more violent aspects, do provide some serious compensation. But most of all it confirms that Ong-Bak was no generic pan flash, and that Thai martial arts cinema may well be looking to steal Hong Kong's long-worn crown.

sound and vision

1.85:1 and anamorphic, it's actually a little tricky to judge the transfer here too accurately because of what appears to be some deliberate post-production tinkering that has beefed up the contrast and added some rather garish tints to some scenes, with some flesh tones looking particularly bilious. This increasingly popular strand of cinematic post-modernism is a fine line to walk, intriguing when it works, an eyesore when it doesn't (check out the revoltingly tinted trailer for Tony Scott's Domino). It doesn't quite come off here, sometimes looking less like a visual style than a slight transfer cock-up, the very evident grain (which itself could be post-produced) and sometimes unnatural colour scheme adding nothing to the film's feel or effectiveness. In all other respects the transfer seems decent enough, with black levels and detail very respectable.

There are three soundtrack options available: Dolby 2.0 stereo, 5.1 Surround and DTS. The stereo track is decent enough, but the 5.1 and (especially) DTS do tend to kick more sonic arse, and given that it's all noise and music in the second half then this works well for the film. Explosions especially make the sofa wobble.

extra features

On the Set of Born to Fight (10:55) is a collection of behind-the-scenes footage, largely concentrating on the filming of the stunts and their occasionally painful aftermath. This has removable English subtitles. There's little structure, but it is interesting to watch for obvious reasons.

The Cast of Born to Fight (5:43) is actually an extended trailer for the film, a collection of action and behind-the-scenes clips overlaid by promotional graphics and the names of the stars. This is a wee bit vacuous.

Interviews (21.19) is what its says, being short interviews with stars Dan Chupong, Kessarin Ektawatkul, Amorthep Waesang, Peeyapong Piew-orn, Nantawat Wongwaninchsilp, Sasia Jindamanee, Rattanaporn Khemtong, Suebsak Pansueb, plus writer, director and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai, and producer Prachya Pinkaew. Most of this is a bit lightweight, save for the interview with Pinkaew (who directed Ong-Bak) when he talks about the process of creating that lorry shot that nearly removed a stunt man from the film and the planet earth.

The are trailers for Born to Fight (2:43), Ong-Bak (2:18) and The Bodyguard (1:58). The Born to Fight is actually rather tasty, but we know which one we like best.

There is also DVD-ROM content, with A Look at the Thai Film Industry by Lee Mason and detailed cast and crew profiles in PDF format, and screensavers for PC and Mac, though I couldn't get the Mac ones to work.

summary

With its over-simplified characters and story and its flag-hugging patriotism, this is definitely one for the hardened action fans, who don't really care how we get to the fights and stunts as long as they deliver, and they certainly do here. As a movie it falls short, but as an ad for the skills of Thai action cinema, it does the job.

Born to Fight
Kerd ma lui

Thailand 2004 .
93 mins
director
Panna Rittikrai
starring
Chupong Changprung
Nappon Gomarachun
Santisuk Promsiri
Dan Chupong
Piyapong Piew-on
Somrak Khamsing
Amornthep Waewsang

DVD details
region 0
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS 5.1
languages
Thai
subtitles
English
extras
Behind the scenes featurette
Interviews
Cast and crew
Trailers
Article
Biographies
Screensaver
distributor
Momentum
release date
24 October 2005
review posted
20 October 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews