The Thai Warrior – Ong-Bak

26 12 2013

Ong-Bak (2003 - Baa-ram-ewe)

I love world Cinema. In HMV (when Lancaster had one) there is a whole section dedicated to films from countries other than the UK and USA. In more recent years a whole load of films have been produced by those other countries that have been met with great critical acclaim. Film’s like 13 Assassins, Troll Hunter, The Host, Pan’s Labyrinth and Ong-Bak. I was surprised when I first watched Ong-Bak to see that it was from Thailand. I knew it was from that area when I began to watch it, but I thought it was more of an Indian based film; however, as the film becomes more apparent of where it is, it begins to grow on you.

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Released in 2003 and Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, Ong-Bak tells the story of Ting (Tony Jaa) who has spent his life in his village, where he has been trained in Muay Thai. After succeeding in a village competition, he is chosen to become a monk in the village where the villagers praise an ancient Buddha statue named Ong-Bak. One night thieves steal the head of the statue. Ting declares that he will get the head back. He arrives in Bangkok and meets his cousin Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), who along with his friend Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol) are street bike racers who make their living as simple con artists. Humlae, who is in trouble from a drug dealer, steals Ting’s money and goes to a Fight Club to bet the money on someone. Ting Arrives and tries to get his money back, but accidently steps up to a fight with the club champion, who he knocks out with one hit, making Ting the new champion, despite not wanting to fight anyone. This gets the attention of local crime lord Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai) who needs to speak with an Electrolarynx. Don (Wannakit Sirioput), the man who stole the head, brings it to Komtuan, who is not interested.

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The following day, Humlae, Muay and Ting are chased through the streets of Bangkok, ting Rescues them both in exchange for them helping him to find Don. They return to the Fight Club where Ting, unwilling to fight, does, only to save the life of someone. He takes on three challengers and dispatches them all with relative ease, gaining respect from the crowd who toss money to him. The trio finds Don’s hideout, who has just forced Muay’s sister Ngek (Rungrawee Barijindakul) to take an overdose. While Muay stays with her sister, Ting and Humlae chase after Don in a couple of Tuk-Tuk’s. The chase ends with Ting discovering Komtuan’s underwater cache of stolen Buddha heads.

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After the heads are recovered by police, Komtuan has Muay kidnapped and orders Humlae to tell Ting that he will get the head of Ong-Bak and Muay back if he faces his Bodyguard Saming (Chattapong Pantana-Angkul) in a fight near the border. Ting loses the fight thanks to a drug fuelled Saming and Komtuan orders the deaths of the trio. Ting manages to save his own life as well as those of Muay and Humlae. Ting, along with Humlae travel to a mountain cave where Komtuan’s men are stealing another Buddha head. Ting manages to subdue Komtuan’s men before defeating Saming.  Komtuan tries to smash the head of Ong-Bak but Humlae steps in to take the blow of the sledgehammer. The Giant Buddha head, rolls off the full statue crushing Komtuan, Humlae dies of his injuries, but not before asking Muay to go with Ting and get her degree. Back at the village, Ong-Bak’s head is restored and Ting is ordained as a monk with Muay celebrating along with the whole village.

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Tony Jaa is terrific in the lead role, great representation of the characters skill as well as what he as a person is really like. When he is taunted into fighting at the club, as he truly doesn’t want to do it, he just does the right thing by ignoring them. It’s only when he feels like there is no option but to fight that he does. He is a very caring person also and while he may have a somewhat cold exterior, he does have a good heart. Humlae meanwhile is a fool, but a good one. He is constantly in debt and looks to steal and con people where he can, add the fact that he is also a coward and then you have the major set up for him. But he does eventually show his worth by learning from his mistakes towards the end and sacrifices himself for the pride of his village. I really like the Character of Muay Lek, while her friend is both a fool and a coward; she is strong in personality and believes in doing the right thing. She is also a very caring person, and while you only see little bits of who she is here and there, from the moment you are introduced to her fully, she grows on you and you get this warm feeling when she is around. Her strong personality also is a sign of the power of human will as those around her are all living in a horrible way, but she is determined to do better in life despite those who have pretty much given up.

Tony Jaa, Pumwaree Yodkamol and Mum Jokmok

Komtuan is an interesting and well thought out villain. As you don’t know his dealings until later on, you just assume he is a drug lord, but then you realize he is a relic thief and that brings out more in him, as he is a man of special, acquired taste. The Electrolarynx he uses also adds to his cruel side as it gives him a hook, something that makes his villain that extra bit interesting, but as a voice tool, it’s a lot like a real world Darth Vader.

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As a martial arts film, Ong-Bak is beautifully choreographed with many beautiful scenes of both the use of Muay Thai and athleticism. When you take the street chase early on in the film, the athleticism is not that of some Chinese films where people can be depicted as flying, these are more shown off as in reality terms. So when Ting needs to Jump over or through something, he does not take off into the air, however it seems fortunate that those obstacles are there and you begin to think that just a few occasions would be ok and a lot more realistic instead of a showcase of Tony Jaa’s talents. When it comes to the fighting though, that’s where the real skill lies and you can see a wide variety of skill throughout these scenes. But for all the well-choreographed skills the film represents, there are occasions where it just goes over the top. While as an audience member I can see what he is doing with relative ease, you don’t need to repeat certain little bits. While it may show a little more action, when the film does do those repeats, it feels unnecessary and slows the film down just that little bit.

For part of the film, Ong-Bak takes the look of some kind of Caper. While you do have comedy scenes from Humlae, there are bits which would just look silly, but it gives Ong-Bak a more down to earth feel about it. The high speed Tuk-Tuk chase is one such example where it looks silly because of the use of Tuk-Tuk’s but, not forgetting the location of the film, it shows some of the culture of the country but also does something which no other normal film does. The mad Caper variety is also included in the street chase also mostly due to Humlae as well as the fortunate obstacles that happen to be in the area, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing as a lot of it is funny in a good taste sense, but also great to watch.

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Ong-Bak also shows the more twisted and shady underside of a culture. The film is wrapped up in its crime world with themes being shown such as Illegal Fight Clubs, Gambling, Relic Stealing as well as drugs which becomes one of the earliest forms of crime. I do think though that the use of drugs as a necessity and crime is also used as a tease, making you think more towards that instead of the real truth, allowing for a surprise. But the fact that these form of what to the rest and more privileged side of the world represent to many what their life consists of as well as the possible lack of real opportunities that is represented by Muay Lek, especially as her sister is taking and using drugs, which leads to her overdose despite the fact that she is dealing as well for the benefit of paying for Muay’s education.

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Ong-Bak is a superb film, while it was the first time I had seen a film from Thailand, I was greatly impressed. While the film did start out quite slow with the Village scenes seemingly trying to fill in large holes in the subtext to quicken up the pace, it is sort of worth it once Ting arrives in Bangkok. That is where the films true blood and spirit lay and while it may not be a big action epic from a more western culture, it integrates its own culture to provide an experience that is both worth watching and should be watched, even if it is just to experience it. The trio of characters are great showing their own unique look on the world they live in, but also ones that you can connect with also. While you may not be a fan of World Cinema, I do recommend you see Ong-Bak, it is a terrific film all the way and you won’t be disappointed, even if you are trying something new.

GENEPOOL

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