Dir. Parchya Pinkaew. Thailand, 2003. 105 min.
Hollywood producers would do well to note the names on the credits before they embark on their next multi-million dollar action franchise. Just as Hong Kong's Yuen Wo Ping brought a different kind of kinetic energy to The Matrix series (as well as advising on the recent Kill Bill films), so the talents in front and behind the camera of this Thai success offer new ideas on wreaking havoc without wires or CG work.
Instead they do so via muay thai, the Thai martial arts technique that combines speed, acrobatics and ruthlessness, which many specialists claim will give the kiss of death to the already ailing Hong Kong variety.
For Ong-Bak is a furious outburst of unbridled energy that will surely satisfy even the most demanding expectations of addicted martial arts buffs. With barely a pretence of a real plot, acting, dialogue, psychological or social relevance, this madly driven, bone-breaking machine has travelled at light speed and crushing everything in its way at the Thai box office and taking $7m. A hot item on the international market, Luc Besson's Europa Corp is handling sales outside Asia (in Japan Gaga has a 300-print plus launch planned for next summer). Pinkaew's picture is just what every festival hopes for its midnight screenings and every specialised action movie cinema yearns for in their dreams. As for its lead, Tony Jaa (born Panom Yeerum), he has the makings of becoming an international martial arts star.
The excuse for the entire escapade is the old fashioned plot formula of a country innocent who is dispatched to the big town to retrieve a treasure, the head of a Buddha statue, stolen by some bad guys. But in this case, the hero, Ting (Jaa), naive and innocent at heart, is also a consummate master of muay thay, which he has learned from a monk who insists that it should be never used for gain. However, since the purpose is to get back a holy relic, everything is permitted. The only question left is not whether Ting can do it, but how. And that's where the spectacle comes in.
From the very first scene, a competition between the village youths to reach the top of a giant tree, pushing each other off the branches in the process, there is barely any respite to catch one's breath, as one action sequence follows another in a demented rush of frenetic destruction.
Everything is perfectly timed, rehearsed and executed, whether it is a mammoth brawl with Jaa taking on any number of WWF-type bruisers; a chase on foot through the Bangkok markets with Jaa leaping over heads, sliding under barriers, jumping over fences while punching and kicking his adversaries one after the other; another chase, this time by tuck-tucks (the three-wheeled Bangkok scooter taxis) galloping at their top speed and clashing en mass with each other; a gas station confrontation with Jaa, aflame, throwing himself at the thugs through a window;or the grand finale, in a cave full of stolen Buddha heads who watch attentively as Jaa smashes one brute after the other.
TV entertainer Wangkalamao is supposed to provide some comic relief and hardboiled tomboy Yodkamol lends female presence. But, with Rithikirai's help, this is first, last and always, Jaa's show. The first of many, or so it seems.
Prod cos: Sahamangkol Film International, Bam-Ram-Ewe
Int'l sales: Europa Corp (outside Asia) Golden Network (Asia)
Prods: Prachya Pinkaew, Sukanya Vongsthapat
Cinematography: Natawut Kittikun
Scr: Suphachai Sithiamphan based on story by Prachya Pinkaew, Phanna Rithikirai
Ed: Thanat Sunsin
Prod des: Akhadaet Kaewchote
Costumes: Arkadech Kaewkotara
Music: Atomix Clubbing
Sound: Chaiyaachab Sethi, Thananapong Boonyachang
Martial arts stunts: Phanna Rithikirai, Tony Jaa
Main cast: Tony Jaa (Panom Yeerum), Petchhai Wongkalamao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Sukhaaw Phongwilai, Wannakit Siriput