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The Thai movie “Ong-bak” is the type of film sane movie stuntmen avoid. Why? Because “Ong-bak” is a vicious and violent (although not very bloody) martial arts film that is less concern with the men doing the stunts than it is with showcasing the power, brutality, grace, and effectiveness of Muay Thai. Muay Thai combines kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and punching — and not necessarily in that order. And if you have seen so-called “Muay Thai” fighting on ESPN, you have not seen the real sport.
At this point I have to ask the forgiveness of my readers. Although I have studied the Thai language and culture over the years, my Thai is still not what it should be. Having said that, the copy of “Ong-bak” that I saw was not subtitled, which meant I was forced to rely on my shaky Thai. Aside from this minor hassle, I can tell you that watching “Ong-bak” I felt what it must have been like to watch the Hong Kong film industry when it first exploded onto the international scene all those decades ago, filled with bravado, pure balls, and unbound energy. Before Hong Kong became a bad mirror image of Hollywood, now lost in silly bliss with films like “The Twins Effect” and other CGI-burdened “kung fu” films, they were “Ong-bak”.
The story of “Ong-bak”, as one might expect, is flimsy at best, and wholly non-existent at worst. Of course the fact that “Ong-bak” barely has a story might have mattered if my attention wasn’t constantly being diverted to some truly inspiring stunts, such as when lead Phanom Yeerum flees a gang of toughs and does some of the most improbable jumps and leaps since Jackie Chan was still considered the world’s greatest Buster Keaton impersonator. Yeerum stars as Ting, a country fighter sent into the city to retrieve his village’s good luck charm, a Buddha statue called Ong-bak. City thieves, unable to procure the artifact cheaply, has elected to steal the object’s head in the middle of the night. So off Ting goes in search of Ong-bak.
Not really a movie, but a series of highly energized stunts performed without the benefit of wireworks, “Ong-bak” stitches together superficial characterization with down-and-dirty fighting around a simple McGuffin. (And if you happen to miss the incredible stunts, don’t worry; the movie will usually offer up at least 2 chances to see them again — sometimes in slow motion, other times from other angles.) Aiding Ting in his quest is former villager Mum Jokmok, whose village name is “Dirty Balls”, but has since changed it to George. (Can you blame the guy?) Now a no-good two-bit conman with a bad gambling addiction, George spends his time conning people, including his own boss. When Ting arrives in town and asks for George’s help to locate the thieves, the other has little interest; that is, until he discovers Ting’s fighting prowess and realizes he can make money off it.
Ting’s fighting ability comes into play when he’s thrown into the illegal fighting ring run by local crime kingpin Suchao Pongwilai, who is confined to a wheelchair and amuses himself by talking through a voice box. The presence of the voice box also makes my already limited Thai even more limited since I couldn’t understand a single word Pongwilai was saying. Besides being irked to fight in Pongwilai’s fight club against Westerners who like to growl a lot and grope the local help, Ting also uses his abilities to defend the weak and — well, just generally crack a lot of skulls with flying elbow strikes.
As I said, story is only thin enough to get Phanom Yeerum’s tight-lipped character into one scrape after another. The search for the Ong-bak is irrelevant to director Prachya Pinkaew, who (rightly) spends all his energies throwing his stuntmen with wild abandon into the flying fists, elbows, and knees of the human whirlwind called Ting. When I say that “Ong-bak” offers up some of the most daring, bone-crunching fights I’ve witnessed since I became aware of this thing called “filmmaking”, I do not exaggerate. There are enough elaborate stunts and power moves in “Ong-bak” to put every Hong Kong action movie I’ve seen in the last 10 years to shame.
As our lead, Yeerum is required to do very little as an actor, and his character actually has fewer lines than Arnold had in the first “Terminator” movie. Here, the axiom “speak softly and carry a knee strike capable of shattering every bone in a man’s body” seems to be the way to go. Mum Jokmok is the requisite funnyman, tossing one comedy routine after another off the dead-serious Ting. Phanom Yeerum could pass for Jason Scott Lee’s younger brother, and has the grace and agility of Jackie Chan, but the “touch me and I’ll kill you ” fierceness of Jet Li. Of course the fact that Yeerum doesn’t have much to say might be because the actor has a rather mousy voice. Think Mike Tyson, but Thai and not utterly insane.
“Ong-bak” is a martial arts movie that probably relies too much on the Underground Fighting gimmick many low-budget martial arts movies find themselves doing. Like the Japanese film “Muscle Heat”, “Ong-bak” is most intriguing when it moves its fighters outside the ring. That’s not to say “Ong-bak” is low budget. It’s a gritty film, not to be taken seriously, with enough high-flying kicks, bone-cracking stunts, and overwhelming enthusiasm for the craft of killing stuntmen that one hardly notices it doesn’t have much of a story. And oh yes, a long “car” chase involving what is called “tuk tuks” — essentially taxis on 3 wheels utilizing dirt bike engines — is quite inventive, if not worthy of some laughs.
Prachya Pinkaew (director) / Prachya Pinkaew, Phanom Yeerum (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Jaa …. Ting
Mum Jokmok …. George/Humlae
Pumwaree Yodkamol …. Muaylek
Suchao Pongwilai …. Ngai