Hey, remember all that pretentious nonsense I said about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon last week? Well, forget all that garbage. This movie has a guy jump on top of another guy’s shoulders and give him a double-dose of elbow to the top of his head.
Sidenote: I love how the poster uses the line “no strings attached” while showing an image of Tony Jaa with ropes tied around his arms. Careful with those metaphors.
Approximately 105 minutes.
The village of Ban Nong Pradu is preparing for its celebration of its religious icon and protector, Ong-Bak. This celebration takes place every twenty-four years, or two cycles. I am guessing that that means zodiac cycles. It “kicks off” with a race up a tree for a flag, which goes on for two-and-a-half minutes. The winner is Ting and the crowd that was previously silent and off-screen cheers wildly.
As the villagers gather in a tiny temple in front of the statue of Ong-Bak, a city slicker named Don arrives with the intention of buying an amulet from one of the elder villagers. The villager refuses, saying that it is for when his son, Humlae, returns to become a monk. Don gives the man his address for when he changes his mind. Not to get off track, but this movie has expended very little time to establish that Don is a complete idiot. He drove to the village under the mistaken assumption that the man was going to sell the amulet is just his most immediately obvious goof. It is also implied, though, that he made arrangements with his boss to buy that amulet, meaning that he had made promises that are based on his being a moron. Thirdly, though, he gives the man his address. Why this is a mess-up is unclear until a bit later.
Ting is practicing some martial arts moves in front of his “uncle” when his teacher, a monk, passes by and tells him to avoid using those fighting moves for personal gain. Ting’s uncle tells him that his teacher had once killed a man during a fighting tournament and became a monk as penance. Well, I guess that that is that. No fighting in this movie.
So, here comes the bit later when it is revealed that Don is still a moron. Unwilling to leave the village empty handed, he steals the head of the Ong-Bak statue and drives off. Why he was unable to track down that elderly man and steal the amulet is anyone’s guess, but he should have at least taken that paper with his address on it. Because while Don might not know where in a small village that elderly man lives, that man knows where in a big city Don lives.
Now, taking the amulet may have upset that one man and the rest of the village may have sympathized with him. Taking the head of Ong-Bak is a different matter. Ong-Bak is the protector of the village and the festival in Ong-Bak’s honor is supposed to save the village from a drought and other hardships. With the statue broken and incomplete, the ceremony cannot take place and the village faces disaster. Ting volunteers to track down Don and return the head of Ong-Bak. The elderly man gives Ting Don’s address as well as a letter that he wrote to his son Humlae. The other villagers chip in with money for Ting’s expenses. And Ting is off to the big city.
It turns out that Humlae has completely left the village behind and assumed a new identity. He has turned into a small time con-artist, trying to cheat other crooks in ill-thought-out schemes with his Muay, his partner in crime. When Ting first sees him, Humlae has just messed up a con on a man to whom he already owes money. Ting, utterly ignorant about Humlae’s circumstances, introduces himself as a fellow villager, which cracks up Muay. Ting tries to give Humlae the letter, but a humiliated Humlae yells at him to leave. When he notices the money that Ting brought, Humlae pretends to try to help long enough to steal the money and run off to a fight club.
This fight club just happens to be the same one where Don is. Don presents his boss, Komtuan, Ong-Bak’s head. Komtuan, who seems to be on the losing side of a fight club bet with another crime boss, has absolutely no interest in the statue head, and is upset that Don did not get the amulet, which is what he actually wanted. See? Don is a moron. Meanwhile, Ting arrives to scold Humlae about the village money that he stole. Humlae points to the betting booth, where he has apparently bet on the wrong fighter. For some reason, Ting tries to walk straight across the fight circle to the betting booth and gets stopped by one of the fighters and the announcer. The announcer contrives a bout and the other fighter comes at Ting. Ting knocks him out with a single knee to the chest…or face…or neck. In any case, this surprise end to the fight gets Ting the money from the village (he refuses the rest of the prize money), a renewed attention from Humlae, and the anger of Komtuan.
As I said last, I am not that big of a martial arts movie fan. That said, I did see this one in the cinema around fifteen years ago. I don’t remember exactly why I saw it in the cinema; maybe because my younger brother and a friend of his wanted to see it and I decided to go along. In any case, this was quite a treat. Yes, the story was rather unoriginal, yes it was full of contrived coincidences and contained one subplot that was completely dropped. Yes the acting was so-so. Yes, the actress who played Muay had what I like to call a really really really annoying voice. But the atmosphere was one of fun and the fighting…yes the fighting. Despite hints of Ting’s skill, the real true action parts do not start until about a third of the way through the movie. Yet when they start, it is glorious.
Hardcore martial arts film fans may provide enough evidence to make me regret typing this particular paragraph, but I, as a casual viewer, gained the impression that the success in this movie in the West signaled a return to form for the martial arts flick. No wires, no green-screen, no CGI. The only gimmick was the fighting style. At the same time, it also signaled that the Japanese and the Chinese-speaking worlds did not have a monopoly on Asian martial arts flicks. Thus fighting movies from South Korea and Indonesia showed up on the radar, as well as films from Vietnam and Cambodia to a lesser extent. Even India, sort of. And maybe other places. As Chinese fighting movies began to crawl up their own arthouses, Hong Kong fighting movies were caught in a spiral of cartoonish parody, and Japanese fighting movies…uh…I don’t know…new paths revealed themselves that were comfortably familiar in template, but intriguingly fresh in the details.
Tony Jaa had been in a few films since 1994, including Mortal Kombat Annihilation as a stunt double, but Ong-Bak: the Thai Warrior (or Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior) was his big break. And he used it to showcase Muay Thai, which had never really had much mainstream notice before then. Of course, now I hear about people doing Muay Thai almost every week and it is probably thanks to Tony Jaa and his movies. Immediately noticeable are the different body parts used for fighting and the somewhat unexpected journeys taken to make contact with an opponent. Arms, elbows, knees, shins, backspins. And since this was released in the United States a few months before the French Parkour film District B13, his scampering around like a monkey was quite grin-inducing. The movie is pretty much a promotion for both Tony Jaa and Muay Thai. Not only are there a few times when the action is shown in slow motion, but there are several moments that are replayed from different angles. The first time was jarring for someone who does not watch fighting movies much; the second time was amusing, and we were pretty much used to it by the third time. Since most of it was pretty awesome, why not show it again?
The movie had brief, but not very subtle shoutouts to Steven Spielberg and Luc Besson. Perhaps Tony wanted to work with them. I don’t know if Spielberg noticed, but Besson must have. He is pretty much credited as the one responsible for bringing this movie to the Western world. Of course, he also made a few changes to it. The most obvious thing that he did was to make the color brighter, but he did a few other things too. He edited out a few minutes worth of footage from the story. There is a bit at the beginning where it is established that Ting was an orphan and was taken in by the monk who became his Muay Thai teacher. There are also some cut scenes involving Humlae dealing with drugs, Muay yelling a lot (egads), and a couple of scenes with a minor character. It is probably not worth it to track down this extended versions just for these scenes, but I am a little perplexed as to why the DVD that I borrowed does not have a deleted scenes section. These scenes are not particularly missed, but they do clear up a couple of odd pieces of dialog. The third major change that Besson had done to the movie was to alter the music. Some of the music is simply brought higher into the sound mix, which is fine. In other cases, the music is outright replaced. To be honest, I have no idea why this was done. The original music, mostly rock-like big beat electronic dance music, is not necessarily the most inspired stuff. Still, it is high energy. Much of the replacement music is synth-heavy and rather minimalist instrumental hip hop at lower tempo. A lot of the energy is sapped out of the scenes. And the tracks themselves are not an improvement in my opinion. They are just as cheesy, but now they are lower energy. And Besson replaces the charmingly goofy Asian pop-rock song during the end credits with a rap song that is just laughable. Again, it is probably not worth it to try to track down the other version just to hear the original music, but if you can find it for cheap or for free, then go for it.
Now, sure, few people go into an action movie for the storyline, which is why I am not complaining about all of the coincidences and whatnot. Still, an overall context for that surrounds the fighting is usually what separates the ho hum action movies from the enjoyable ones. This movie provides the tried and true theme of rural life vs urban life. The village is a place of community, of reverence, of spirituality, of simplicity, of tradition, of honesty, of support, of family. The city is a place of crime, of schemes, of sin, of decadence, of brutality, of selfishness, of greed, of corruption, of lies, of death. Okay, the movie is not that blunt about it, but it is there somewhere. And while that is hardly a new theme, it works to pretty good effect here. It also gives a bit of a minor arc to the two main characters. Ting starts out seemingly naïve about the harsh rules of the city, and has to learn to deal with people who may not be as perfect as he is. Then there is Humlae, who finds his cynical opportunism challenged by this most noble example of humanity from a life that he had left behind. Also, there is Ong-Bak itself. Don, in his stupidity, seems to believe that the devotion that the villagers have for Ong-Bak can translate into money. Komtuan, however, has no use for religious artifacts that he cannot put a price on. Komtuan considers himself to be a god, despite the fact that he is wheelchair-bound and has to speak using an electrolarynx. I am not sure whether his condition is meant to be an Icarus-esque commentary on the hard living or whether that is just an attempt at humor, but it may be both. Maybe it is supposed to be ironic that his underlings cut the heads off of statues while he has a hole in his neck. I don’t know.
So there is an ever present spiritual aspect in this movie, but there is another aspect that overrides that one: Fun. Yes, this movie is tons of fun. Just as the action provided an alternative to the wire-fu films coming out of other parts of Asia, the tone was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the high-minded pretension that had been plaguing the genre. Yes, there is a good amount of serious bits to keep it from going completely overboard, but it is still a fun movie. There is one particular scene near the end that got the entire cinema cracking up. It was not because it was stupid or because it was even particularly funny; it was just because we were all conditioned to expect one thing to happen and something slightly different happened. Watching that scene again four times in a week probably dulls the surprise and the humor, but I can still remember that massive wave of laughter when I first saw it.
This sense of fun is sadly missing from the two in-name-only sequels…or prequels. They are set in the past with different characters and are meant to be historical epics. And they are not fun historical epics. Sure, there are some funny bits in those movies, but there are no real fun bits. Perhaps Tony Jaa was trying to get away from the over-the-top antics of The Protector or the outright silliness of the two Bodyguard movies with these Ong-Bak follow-ups, but I feel as if he went too far in the other direction. They are dreary and up themselves, with supernatural elements and mind games and prolonged sequences that are neither fighting nor storyline. They had the pretension of the modern wire-fu films without the artistry that came with the wire-works. I guess that may have been able to appreciate those movies more had they not been directly associated with the first Ong Bak movie, but I still probably would have disliked them. I read a while back that Tony Jaa had gone a little bonkers at the time and his behavior had led to production difficulties. I don’t know if that is true, but I would not be surprised. Also, the Protector sequel? Holy moly is it unenjoyable. I guess that he may have started to return to form. He was in a few movies, both starring and cameos. Most importantly, he will…supposedly…be in a movie called Triple Threat with a bunch of other martial arts stars, such as Iko Uwais from The Raid. And it is my assumption that none of us would have heard of Iko Uwais in the first place if not for Tony Jaa leading the way. And I have wandered way off track.
In the absence of a proper conclusion, I will compare this movie to the first fruit in a new box of fruit. If you had been eating the fruit from an older box, they may be fine, but perhaps getting slightly stale. Suddenly, here is a new box of fruit. It is still the same fruit, but fresher. It reminds you how good the fruit can be. Yet, there is something slightly different with this batch of fruits. Nothing major, but different enough that you take notice and interest. Whether you can properly consume and enjoy these fruits before they get stale remains to be seen, but you can at least maintain the memory of that first wonderful taste. Just eat it quickly before you get elbowed in the head.
WTF ASIA 22: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (South Korea: 2002, Approx. 121 minutes)
Available on Vudu.
WTF ASIA 23: Cyclo (Vietnam: 1995, Approx. 123 minutes)