The Knights Who Say "Knee!"

Monday, 14 February 2005 — 1:27pm | Film, Full reviews

Mid-February is a special time in that it is when filmgoers who do not have the fortune to catch early limited runs in Los Angeles, New York or Toronto ring in the new year. ‘Tis the season to write year-end summaries and forecasts for the season ahead.

I will do just that with the 2004 harvest in good time, as I have now left that year behind (aside from never having gotten around to the likes of Collateral and Hotel Rwanda) and seen the first theatrical release of 2005 worth mentioning, Ong-Bak.

On the surface, everything that happens in Thailand’s signature hit film is old and tired by what we have come to expect in North America. Tony Jaa plays a country boy who goes to the city, finds his former country-boy cousin turned urban gambler, fights in an underground boxing ring in a quest to recover an artifact of value from a drug kingpin, gets involved in an explosive car chase, and has a climactic final showdown with a baddie hopped up on steroids. We’ve seen it before, we might think.

That is, until we realize that the country boy comes from the villages of rural Thailand and ends up in Bangkok, a city of nine million – a disparity that really has to be seen to be understood, should you ever get the chance to visit the region; the underground boxing ring doesn’t feature just any boxing, but the ancient art of Muay Thai; the artifact of value is a sacred Buddha image of paramount importance to the villagers; the explosive car chase is on tuk-tukstuk-tuks! – and the final showdown makes for one hell of a good fight scene.

The novelty of Ong-Bak can be identified thus: can you name another Thai action flick you’ve seen? Didn’t think so. And what makes Ong-Bak interesting is that it is a celebration of all things Thai short of the blues compositions of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I mean, a tuk-tuk chase!

In all seriousness, the thing that this movie will be remembered for is that it fills a gaping void in modern martial arts cinema, in that we really, really needed a Muay Thai superstar like Tony Jaa to burst onto the scene. Someone of his calibre is long overdue, and very welcome. Ong-Bak unreservedly exploits all of the distinctive characteristics of Thai boxing, particularly its emphasis on pummeling your opponent with your joints, not just your fists and feet of fury. Elbows land on skulls with an audible crack. Knees land on, um, people, with a sickening crunch.

The film sells itself as being free of CG and wire-work, but that’s just one of many ancillary benefits of an ethnic fighting flick being produced outside of the American studio system. The one that really shows is the length of the action sequences. It is rare nowadays to find continuous action sequences, rip-roaring urban chases and extended duels that comprise the majority of a movie without being repetitive, and nigh on impossible to spot this ever happening in an American-made product. Comparisons to 1980s Jackie Chan are entirely accurate, aside from the lack of slapstick comedy and Sammo Hung.

In terms of storytelling, everything of significance is flat-out obvious, but it is still worth noting. The obligatory string of one-on-one fights against increasingly burly Anglo-American thugs in the underground fight club are a prideful demonstration of the superiority of Muay Thai; if you follow martial arts cinema at all, you probably know that the superiority of the hero’s discipline is a recurring secondary theme whenever foreigners are present. (Or final-fight foes hopped up on steroids, for that matter.)

Then there’s how the evil mob boss atop the chain of command is a wheelchair-bound tracheostomy patient who speaks with an electronic device and smokes through his throat, but deifies himself as a god; recall that the plot revolves around the recovery of a stolen Buddha head, and you have a neat little parallel motif of headless idols going on.

And there’s a tuk-tuk chase!

Now, for some criticisms: like I said earlier, the premise of the film is about as standard as you can get from a modern action flick. Without the undercurrents that are distinctly Thai, which are thankfully almost ubiquitous, Ong-Bak would not be much of a film at all. There is only one reason to watch this movie – a very good reason, mind you – and that is to see superstar Muay Thai combat committed to celluloid. It would be nice if eventually, Tony Jaa is cast in something of real cultural significance and mythic quality; Thailand has a rich tradition to draw from, a tradition that is underexposed in the Western corpus.

The editing is tight for the most part, but one particular device grows tired very quickly due to overuse: the preponderance of sportscast-like instant replays of every particularly impressive stunt. I realize that the filmmakers may have been very impressed with certain takes, but for the sake of continuity and pacing, it is customary to pick your best angle and stick with it. Using such a device is excusable if done sparingly, but there are so many ooh-inspiring hits in Ong-Bak that the filmmakers just couldn’t get enough of it. Well, I did.

The last issue, and one that is actually an impediment to some of the fights, is that some scenes are shot in lighting that is so dim as to obscure the action. Yes, underground boxing clubs should be dark, but the thing about movies is that even in darkness, the audience can still see. Here, that is sometimes questionable.

There is a minor problem with the Magnolia Pictures edit that is in release here in North America, and that would be the addition of music that feels very much out of place. Dan Kaszor, who as I’ve remarked on many occasions is one of the few fellow U of A students whose knowledge of film I vouch for and trust, says in his Gateway review that the original music was none too great either, but one has to wonder if it were perhaps more tonally consistent. Personally, I don’t think foreign films should ever be tampered with upon local release, but I have the disadvantage of not being a major studio boss.

But these gripes aside, I recommend Ong-Bak for its offering of what is currently a one-of-a-kind experience in some respects. If it leads to the explosion of a burgeoning Thai boxing film industry of which the international community is aware, with Tony Jaa as its headlining celebrity, the world will be all the richer.


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