Ong-Bak has arguably had the biggest international impact of any Thai film since its release in 2003, a huge success in Asia and a cult on DVD/VCD long before its theatrical release in the west. One chase sequence will show you why the film’s star Tony Jaa (aka Phanom Yeerum) is being hailed as the new Bruce/Jackie/Jet (delete as applicable). He vaults over moving cars and slides underneath them in double-splits, flips between two narrow panes of glass, leaps through a ring of barbed wire and runs across the shoulders of a group of heavies. The latter stunt is a Jet Li wire-fu classic, given a CGI spin in The Matrix Reloaded, but Jaa does it without wires.
Is he for real, really for real? For one answer, check out the Thai ‘Making Of’ documentary, in which we see behind-the-scenes footage of all of the stunts, including a rehearsal in a warehouse. But just to clinch it, Jaa performed some of his most amazing stunts live at press conferences in Hong Kong and Korea. While the film uses CGI for some of its non-fighting sequences, Jaa is very much for real.
The film tells the story of a young fighter, Ting (Jaa), who travels from his village, Nong Pradu, to Bangkok to retrieve the stolen statue head of the local Buddha. He inadvertently becomes involved in an illegal fighting club and runs foul of a powerful gambler and trader in stolen treasures. He acquires two companions, Hum Lae (Mum Jokmok), a fellow villager who has renamed himself ‘George’ in denial of his origins, and Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamoi), a teenage girl whose older sister falls prey to big city decadence. For all of its local touches, such as a chase involving Thailand’s three-wheeled tuk-tuks, this is a familiar story for fans of Hong Kong films. The country hick hero, naïve but deadly, recalls the migrant protagonists played by Bruce Lee in The Big Boss (1971) – filmed in Thailand – and Way of the Dragon (1972).
Ong-Bak may be eager for global success, but it also displays a streak of nationalism that can be found in a number of recent Thai films. Bangrajan (2000), the story of Thai villagers fighting Burmese invaders, was shown alongside ads for the nationalist Thai-Rak-Thai party who would win a landslide victory in 2001 by promising to ‘repel’ foreign business ‘invaders’. Ting’s fight club opponents are all foreigners, including a Japanese fighter with a Bruce Lee strut and funky Old Boy hairdo, but his ultimate opponent will be a Burmese boxer pumped with steroids to the point of near-invulnerability. Burma is Thailand’s favourite antagonist, just as Hong Kong movies once cast Japan as China’s ‘natural’ enemy.
Ting is an exponent of Muay Thai, characterised by its punishing use of knees and elbows. Its piercing kicks are delivered with a straight leg, rotating the hips to put the body’s whole weight behind it. Muay Thai isn’t pretty, and some of Jaa’s most impressive moves owe less to Thai boxing than they do to a more graceful tradition of Hong Kong stuntwork that grew out of Chinese Opera. His mid-air feinting kicks, spins and flips recall the mid-80s heyday of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. There’s the sense of a Thai film seeking to outdo its former ‘superior’ in the Asian market, and its intense physicality has made it appeal to wire-phobic fanboys who bemoan the loss of ‘authenticity’ in post-90s Chinese action films.
Most English-language reviews mention Ong-Bak’s graffiti invitations to Spielberg and Besson to work together (Besson responded by distributing the film in France). But one almost expects to find another scrawled message – "Hey, Jackie and Jet – feel old yet?" As body cinema, Ong-Bak is state of the Martial Art – Jaa is in the position that Bruce Lee once was of seemingly being able to do what no one else can. But is he a star or a stuntman? Read the breathless internet tributes and you might be convinced that he’s the heir to the throne. But amazing as he is, Jaa is less of a total package than Lee et al. When he isn’t leaping, flipping or cracking skulls, he projects a one-note guilelessness, where his predecessors had charisma as well as moves.
Then again, this is Jaa’s debut vehicle, and the sequel Tom Yum Goong might give more indication of star presence. While there’s ultimately less to Ong-Bak than the best Chinese Martial Arts films – it’s largely an extended stunt reel, albeit a breathlessly exciting one – it’s the film that raises the most interesting questions about the genre’s future. Is it a blip on the radar or a sign of things to come?