a cinema-going sense, I grew up on kung-fu movies. They
arrived in the UK a few years too early for me to legally get into the cinemas at which they were screening, and in these pre-video days that was the
only way you were going to see them. They were the talk
of the school playground but were all X-rated,
the long-ago equivalent of today's 18 certificate. Fine
for the sixth-formers, who could pull off the I'm-older-than-I-look
bullshit to the more gullible or sympathetic box-office
guardians, but a near-impossible task for us 13-to-14-year-olds.
But the draw was considerable, and two of us, who were tall and
scraggy-looking for our age, decided we'd try it on, figuring
that we might get away with it purely because no-one would
expect anyone that young to attempt such a ludicrous
deception. Both of us were nervous but determined to go
ahead with it. Then, the day before we were due to make
our play, my friend chickened out. I was mortified – how
could I possibly do this on my own? Then I did something really
stupid and got the surprise of my life. I told my mother
what we'd been planning. I can't remember why, but I did.
To my utter astonishment, her reaction was not admonishment,
but this: "Well if he won't go with you, sod him.
Go on your own." I thus dressed up like an office
worker, put on my best air of false confidence, lowered
my voice a couple of octaves and off I went. To my dizzying
delight, they bought it. The film was Chang-hwa Jeong's King Boxer (1973), which is also known as Five
Fingers of Death. Needless to say, I'd never
seen anything like it. In the following five years I lied
my way into everything that Hong Kong action cinema (and
in the case of Enter the Dragon, Hollywood)
saw fit to throw in our direction and became utterly enamoured
with Bruce Lee, the man history has rightly credited as the genre's
greatest star. Ironically, by the time I was
old enough to see the X-rated films legitimately, the
first kung-fu cycle had all but burnt itself out.
second wave had its own superstar, a young, insanely acrobatic
fighter named Jackie Chan. Chan upped the action level
and deftly combined it with a physical comedy that harked
back to the silent film acrobatics of Buster Keaton and
Harold Lloyd. Like Bruce Lee, Chan had his own distinctive
screen persona and fighting style, creating in the process
very specific expectations of what constituted 'a Jackie
Chan film', something that was diluted
by a later move to America.
then other stars have risen and been borrowed by Hollywood
(Jet Li being one of the most notable), and the traditional
kung-fu film has lost popularity to the Chinese Wuxia fantasy following the phenomenal international success
of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House
of Flying Daggers, while Stephen Chow has kept the
genre's comedic element alive with the likes of God
of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.
Hollywood began plundering the techniques of the Wuxia films,
and the computer-enhanced wire work and high-speed editing
techniques, for all their visual elegance, made it harder
to appreciate the physicality of the performers. But that,
it would seem, is about to change.
Ong-Bak arrived in the UK on the back of some tantalising pre-release
publicity. Showcasing the talents of a new action star
in the shape of Tony Jaa, the film proudly announced that
it contained no wire work or CGI, and that all of
the sometimes spectacular stunt work was carried out by
the performers rather than stunt doubles. I, for one, was intrigued, even more so when I learned that the film originated not from Hong Kong as expected, but Thailand.
have to admit that my exposure to Thai cinema has been
somewhat limited but always memorable: Wisit Sasanatieng's
2000 Tears of the Black Tiger, Pen-Ek
Ratanaruang's 2001 Monrak Transistor and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2004 Tropical
Malady are three of the more distinctive world
cinema releases of recent years, and The Pang Brothers
have made a substantial international impact with the
likes of Bangkok Dangerous and The
Eye. Little did I know that Thai action cinema
was also on the way to becoming a force to be reckoned
with on the world stage, and that Ong-Bak and the very considerable talents of one Tony Jaa were
the to be the opening fusillade.
arts movie plots and characters of years past often
followed similar, even simplistic lines. Heroes were kind-hearted
innocents caught up in dastardly plots through no fault
of their own, bad guys were really bad and backed up by
armies of violent henchmen,* and the two usually came
into conflict after honour was offended and/or a family
member or wise old sifu was maimed or killed. Not that this ever mattered.
Like the fall-in/fall-out relationships of musicals
and the come-to-fix-the-gas-meter shenanigans of porn
movies, these plots functioned purely to transport the
characters from one set-piece to another, and it was these scenes that the audience handed over their dosh to see.
is this very model that provides the set up for Ong-Bak,
whose opening scenes display a sense of innocence that
borders on parody but which are played utterly straight, as if the tragic mythology of Crouching Tiger et al had never taken place. Set in the village
of Nong Pra-du, where the people are poor but spiritual,
the villagers are mortified when the head of Ong-Bak,
their temple's statue of Buddha, is stolen by outsiders.
Step forward the athletic and orphaned Ting, who was raised by
local monks and skilled in the ancient fighting art of
Muay Thai, and who volunteers to travel to Bangkok and track
down and return the head. On his arrival he stumbles across street-hustler
George (played energetically by comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao),** who also hails from Nong Pra-du but is hiding from his
past and is accompanied by a young cohort named Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol).
The three eventually form an uneasy alliance to search
for the missing head.
the plot preamble harks back to earlier generic times
then so does the technique. The film-makers have made
no secret of their admiration for the cinema of both Bruce
Lee and Jackie Chan, and this is clearly visible in the
structure of the narrative and some of the set-pieces.
Ting's agility and fighting skills are very effectively
hinted at early on as he practices his moves, but like
Lee in The Big Boss, he repeatedly shies
away from demonstrating them on others, a very effective
tease that is heightened by his single blow defeat of an
opponent when he unknowingly wanders into the ring at
an illegal fight club. A short scuffle later he is being
chased down back-streets and performing a range of spectacular
stunts in a sequence that inevitably recalls the street
acrobatics of Jackie Chan, a link accentuated by the comic
mirroring of his actions by the hapless George, who here
provides the film's funniest laugh-out-loud
gag. It will take a return to the fight club and a lot
more provocation before Ting really gets to show what
he's made of. By then even the more casual martial
arts movie viewer will be fully aware that, despite its
influences, Ong-Bak is no post-Jet Li
knock-off, but something new, and something potentially very
exciting for the genre's future.
first thing that marks Ong-Bak out is
its very evident national identity. The language, facial
features and customs all give the film a feel that immediately
distances it from its Hong Kong cousins, while its open embracement
of Buddhism and Buddhist principals very much reflect
the beliefs of its domestic audience (Ting's initial refusal
to fight and preference for pushing people aside rather
than thumping them comes not from a promise to his mum
but his religious convictions). But most startling is
the Muay Thai fighting technique itself, a still-practiced
ring sport that uses elbows and knees as much as fists
and feet, and as presented here is a martial art of exceptional
brutality – when Ting leaps through the air and brings
his elbow crashing down on the top of an opponent's head
there will be few who will not wince at the real-world
consequences of such an attack. Indeed, it was this very
element that prompted Jackie Chan, of all people, to wonder
if the film were not too violent, and on his
commentary track Bey Logan on three separate occasions
pleads with watching fans not to try this at home.
the elegance of kung-fu with the street-level viciousness
of Hard Times' bare-knuckle boxing, Muay
Thai delivers as both a balletic screen spectacle and
a thumpingly impressive method of unarmed combat. Stripped
of the wire work and CGI, the fights have a physicality
to them that is both refreshing and at times a little
alarming. There are no faked angles or pulled punches
here, they all make visible contact and are accompanied
not by the famed but exaggerated noise of kung-fu wallops,
but earthily realistic body contact sounds. When blows
land here, you feel them. Despite their still choreographed
nature, this is probably as realistic as martial arts
fights have looked and sounded in a long while.
Prachya Pinkaew forges further links to the genre's roots
by abandoning the create-in-the-edit technique of many
recent genre works (and especially western action films
that have borrowed them), his camera placement always
showcasing the skills of his performers instead of blurring
them in a blizzard of fast-cut close-ups. Not that this
affects the pace of the film in any way – it fairly belts
from one scene to the next, Nattawat Kittikhun's often
mobile camera infusing the action scenes with a visual
urgency that very effectively matches that of the performers.
of which would still make Ong-Bak an
efficient but potentially run-of-the-mill action outing
were it not for one, very important component: Tony Jaa.
Seeing him in Ong-Bak is one of those
skin-prickling moments in your viewing career, like catching
Bruce Lee for the first time in Fist of Fury or Jackie Chan in Young Master, when
you know you are witness to the start of something big.
Jaa is an extraordinarily agile and dexterous athlete
whose unusually rock-solid fighting stance can explode
with graceful brutality in a literal blink of an eye.
As a film fighter he is phenomenal, but as a screen presence
he in many ways kicks against the genre norm – there is
no comic mugging or iconic vocalisation, Jaa's everyman
looks and disarmingly low-key acting at times giving him
the feel of a background character rather than the star.
If part of a movie hero's job is to provide a figure for
audience identification and wish-fulfilment, then Jaa
succeeds in a way that few have done before, an ordinary
guy who is pure of heart and can beat people six ways
from Sunday. Whether this persona is a one-film deal or
not only time will tell, but here it works a treat, creating
a likeable character who also happens to be an atomic
force for good.
a vehicle for launching a major new talent onto the international
market, Ong-Bak is right up there with
the best. The story has few surprises, but on every other
level the film delivers in spades, leaping energetically
from one memorable set piece to the next without ever
repeating itself, sprinkling the action with humour and
even throwing in a vehicle chase that is unlike any other
you'll have come across recently. For genre fans this
is a rare treat, a martial arts film that draws on the
past and yet delivers something new, and does so with
considerable style. If there's any justice then Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew and Muay
Thai itself are all going to be big time on the martial
arts action scene. For once it's OK to believe
the hype. Just don't try it at home.
at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a very
good transfer that copes well with the film's bronze-tinted
interiors, though occasionally compression artefacts can
be seen in areas of similar colour. The tonal range is
good, as are the contrast and black levels, and the picture
is sharp without obvious evidence of enhancement. Colours
in the non-tinted scenes – the tuk-tuk chase is a good
example – appear solid.
The subtitles appear to be dub-titles, matching the English
dub in most respects, right down to the use of the word
'wanker', an unlikely insult in the back streets of Bangkok.
They are clear enough, but of surprisingly low resolution,
looking like they were done on Deluxe Paint on
a Commodore Amiga.
are three soundtracks on offer, Thai 5.1, Thai DTS, and
a 5.1 English dub. The first thing that you notice is
how much louder the DTS track is than the 5.1, but cranking
up the 5.1 track gives the DTS the edge in other areas,
the crisper trebles matched by a fuller use of lower frequencies.
This is particularly noticeable when the music kicks in.
don't like dubs for a variety of reasons, no matter how
well done they are – the director's lack of involvement
in this crucial aspect of the film, the changing of dialogue
to fit mouth movements, the loss of the sound and inflection
of the language, and so on. Here the dub is performed
with enthusiasm, but in the process Bangkok has become
East Stepney, as a range of colourful mockney voices are
attached to characters, some of which (George in particular)
just don't work at all. As so often, the voices have not
been processed to sound like they were recorded on location,
and so always seem dislocated from the action. Strangely,
villainous crime lord Khom Tuan is played like Ron Moody's
Fagin from Oliver!
only real complaint here is not about what's included,
but what's missing. The movie has been re-scored for its
UK release after it was deemed that the original, more
traditionally Thai music would not play as well in western
markets.Frankly I would like the opportunity
to judge that for myself, and would really have appreciated
a track that included that score. It was good enough for
director Prachya Pinkaew, and he seems to know what he's
there's one thing that instantly gives many region 2 martial
arts DVD releases a huge edge over their region 1 cousins
it's the inclusion of a commentary track by Eastern cinema expert Bey Logan. An industry insider
with a huge knowledge of martial arts cinema, he has met
and worked with a fair number of those appearing in the
films he comments on, but still takes a true genre fan's
delight in their work. This is a typically excellent Logan
commentary, crammed with facts about the filming and the
actors (even bit part players are covered in detail), information
on the various influences, the aforementioned warnings about
using Muay Thai on others, and even a cheerful protestation
about a visual trick used in the film that was originally
his idea. All of this is delivered with barely a pause for
breath, but Logan still takes time out to marvel at Tony
Jaa's skill, cutting himself short at one point to remark
in an awed voice, "Now that is just extraordinary!"
as Jaa performs one of his more jaw-dropping moves. He also
talks in some detail about the cuts made to the French release
by Luc Besson (whom he also credits as being one of Jaa's
earliest champions), and the new score created specifically
for this version.
extras on the second disk are divided into three sections. The Cutting Room Floor has eight short deleted
scenes, all non-anamorphic widescreen and
some way short of perfect, with iffy contrast and definition
and artefacts dancing around the screen in the manner of
low compression mpeg files. Sound is also less than pristine
(and not there at all at one point), but they are nonetheless
a very important inclusion, most of them having been directly
referred to in the commentary, including the alternate ending.
The first four are from the same sequence. You also get
a brief aural glimpse of what sounds like the original Thai
score. All are subtitled in the Amiga font.
Promotional Archive has five entries, all but one of
which are anamorphic 16:9.
on Tour (3:01) covers what appears to be the
Thai premiere, at which Tony Jaa signs autographs and performs
some of his fighting moves and stunts live for the assembled
crowds, intercut with extracts from the film in which the
Art of Muay Thai (24:05) looks at the philosophy
and techniques of Muay Thai and features the masters and
students of the Sor Vorapin boxing gym in Bangkok. Some
of this is conducted in English, and the trainer with the
heavier accent is subtitled, but this can be switched off
if you find it a little condescending. A very clear explanation
is provided of the rules of Muay Thai fights and the training
required (and the early age at which you are expected to
start). One dangerous-looking Thai boxer claims that only
Thai people can properly use this fighting style, but later
admits that some of the foreign fighters regularly win competitions
there. He also liked Ong-Bak a lot. If
Muay Thai boxing is a new experience for you, this is an
informative and enjoyable introduction.
The UK promotional trailer (2:10)
gives a nice flavour of the film, even if it is narrated
by Trailer Voice Man. Sound on this is 5.1.
Road to Glory: The Making of Ong-Bak (76:43)
is a near feature-length look behind the scenes at the making
of the film. Shot on DV (this is the only extra in this section framed
4:3), it features a running commentary by director
Prachya Pinkaew, co-writer of the original story Phanna
Rithikrai, and Tony Jaa, credited here by his real name Phanom
Yeerum. Divided into eight chapters, this is a wonderful
extra feature, providing a comprehensive look at the making
of construction of some of the film's most memorable action
sequences, combining rehearsal material (the film had an
extraordinary four-year rehearsal period, and was constructed
almost in total on DV before a frame of film was shot) with
footage of the shoot itself and extracts from the film.
There is a wealth of fascinating stuff here, and if anything
seeing the fights and stunts performed in one, uninterrupted
take increases your respect for Jaa and his stunt crew even
further. A number of injuries are shown, including a bad
landing that resulted in torn ligaments for Jaa and suspension
of shooting for several months. Your sense of relief at
the safety precautions taken is countered somewhat by seeing
just how hard the performers hit each other to get the desired
Dust to Glory: An Interview with Leading Man Tony Jaa (3:46) is taken from what appears to be an Australian movie
show, whose female host talks not just to Jaa, but also,
briefly, director Prachya Pinkaew.
third and final section, Fight Club, has four subsections.
Visible Secret: Rehearsal Footage Montage (4:04) consists of footage of Tony Jaa and stuntman Don
Ferguson blocking out ideas for the fight club scene. This
is 35mm footage shot specifically to demonstrate the moves
to the actors who would be playing the scene in the movie
Bodyguard: An Interview with Don Ferguson (10:05)
has Canadian stuntman and Tae-Kwon-do champion Don Ferguson
talk about his experiences in working on the film.
Dog: An Interview with David Ismalone (11:33)
is in a similar style to the above and shot in the same
location. Ismalone, a French fighter who like Ferguson is
resident in Thailand, plays Mad Dog, the plate, chair and
fridge-throwing opponent in the fight club scene. The interview
is conducted in English.
Harbour: An Interview with Erik Markus Sheutz (13:54) has German Thai boxer Erik Markus Sheutz talk about
his early experiences with Muay Thai, his career change
to stuntman and his experiences working on Ong-Bak as Jaa's
first opponent in the fight club. Sheutz is chatty and interesting
and talks in very fluent English.
have complained at Ong-Bak's unadventurous
plotting, but those familiar with the genre will know this
is a moot point, considering its purpose is solely to shuttle
us from one action sequence to the next. Given my disdain
for the simplistic plots and characters that curse most
modern Hollywood products this may sound somewhat hypocritical,
but if an action movie flies or dies by its set pieces then Ong-Bak soars. The astonishing acrobatics
and fighting skills of Tony Jaa and his team, the exuberant
direction of Prachya Pinkaew and the sheer inventiveness
of the stunts and fights make this the single most exciting
martial arts film to hit these shores in years.
Premiere Asia have done the film proud with this Platinum
Edition release, with strong picture and sound, a typically
fine Bey Logan commentary and a collection of very good
extras, the shining star of which has to be the 77 minute
making-of documentary, which as well as being fascinating
viewing includes a commentary by the director, lead actor
and co-writer, effectively substituting for a filmmaker's
commentary on the main feature. My only regret, as stated
above, is the lack of the original Thai music score, which
must count as a woefully missed opportunity on what otherwise
comes close to being the definitive DVD edition of the film.
That aside, this is a must-buy for all fans of of the film
and of martial arts cinema in general.
This was hilariously sent up in Stephen Chow's Shaolin
Soccer, whose insanely nasty bad guys actually
called themselves 'The Evil Team'.
His village name is Humlae, but the literal translation
of his adopted name is apparently 'Dirty Balls'.