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Boxing for Buddhism
A region 2 DVD review of ONG-BAK by Slarek
 

In 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.

The 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.

Since 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.

I 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.

Martial 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.

It 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.

If 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.

The 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.

Combining 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.

Director 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.

All 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.

As 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.

sound and vision

Framed 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.

There 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.

I 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!

My 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 doing.

extra features

If 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.

The 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.

The Promotional Archive has five entries, all but one of which are anamorphic 16:9.

Ong-Bak 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 moves appeared.

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.

The 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 effect.

From 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.

The 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 proper.

The 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.

Mad 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.

Pearl 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.

summary

Some 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'.

Ong Bak

Thailand 2003
108 mins
director
Prachya Pinkaew
starring
Tony Jaa
Petchtai Wongkamlao
Suchao Pongwilai
Wannakit Sirioput
Cumporn Teppita
David Ismalone

DVD details
region 2 .
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Surround 5.1
Dolby DTS 5.1
languages
Thai
English
subtitles
English
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Bey Logan commentary
Deleted scenes
Ong-Bak on tour
Muay Thai featurette
Trailer
The Making of Ong-Bak documentary
Interviews
Rehearsal footage
distributor
Contender – Premiere Asia
release date
19 September 2005
review posted
15 September 2005

related review
Warrior King

See all of Slarek's reviews