Moviegoers love a good brawl: Bangkok??s market stalls are besieged by chop-socky flaunting video imports from Hong Kong. Their influence is so pervasive that action scenes in Thai films largely replicate these cine-friendly kung-fu stylings. This seems peculiar when you consider Thailand has its own uniquely vicious brand of kickboxing, but the domestic combat discipline is overwhelmingly underrepresented on the silver screen. Thai director Pracha Pinkaew decided to try and even the balance with this, the first Thai movie to reclaim muaythai as a valid martial art in its own right.
Pracha says he always fancied helming a distinctly Thai flavored action film, and this is his first directorial effort in eight years (although he??s been making Ong Bak for four). He was stirred from his usual producer??s role when kung fu obsessed 27-year-old Phanom Yeerum pitched an idea to Pracha??s production house, Baa-Ram-Ewe.
Inspired by Jackie Chan??s death-defying antics as a child, Phanom could be found somersaulting over haystacks and jumping across canals in the Isaan rice fields. After enrolling as a gymnastics student, he underwent years of martial arts training, eventually beating out dozens of rivals to play Robin Shou??s stunt double in Mortal Combat: Annihilation.
The visual appeal of martial arts stems from its triumph of form over function. None of us really believes that kung fu works best in a street fight -- if that was the case it wouldn??t be the wrestlers who constantly win the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- but the martial arts are undeniably aesthetically pleasing. Whereas occidental fight scenes in Western movies emphasize raw hatred, ritualized Eastern combat symbolizes a mutual celebration of elaborate skill: a carnival of aesthetics and supreme physicality. But in its gritty modern form muaythai is direct and brutal; it has evolved to emphasize a clinical efficiency and economy of movement far removed from the graceful, twirling forms favored by Hong Kong and Hollywood. So Phanom traced the roots of muaythai in order to represent its more elegant and traditional manifestation, muay boran. He rediscovered around 100 long-abandoned moves and stances, never seen onscreen before, with the result that most audiences who saw the Ong Bak trailer assumed that they were really watching kung fu.
The plots of martial arts movies are usually little more than a clothesline for the fight set pieces, and Ong Bak abides by this formula. Urbanite thieves steal the head of a revered Buddha image from an upcountry village temple, where a mass ordination ceremony is scheduled to take place a week later. It becomes the task of villager Boonting (Phanom) to track the thief down to Bangkok and reclaim the religious treasure.
In Bangkok, Ting gets inadvertently involved in unlicensed fighting, organized by the Ong Bak thieves, in a warehouse in a dingy alleyway off Khaosarn Road. These illegal gatherings provide ample opportunity for Phanon to show off his skills and while muayboran proves a more stylish spectacle than the blunt harshness of muaythai, the action is often uncomfortably realistic; you??ll be flinching in your seat as another crunching knee strike connects alarmingly with some anonymous scrapper??s jaw. The illegal gatherings also pit Ting against a motley crew of foreign challengers, giving Thai audiences a kick from watching their countryman mete out fierce physical punishment to a bunch of unseemly farangs.