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August 26, 2006

Ong-Bak

ongbak.jpg

Prachya Pinkaew - 2003
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

With the hype I was reading about the upcoming The Protector (the U.S. title for Tom Yum Goong), I made a point of seeing Ong-Bak. Even those who don't make a point of watching martial arts films should check out Tony Jaa in action. Sure, he's been compared to Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Let's add to that the acrobatics of Burt Lancaster, the grace of Gene Kelly and the ability to defy gravity like Nijinski. Admittedly the screen capture above shows Jaa as a blurry presence, but most of Ong-Bak is a perpetual motion machine, with Jaa in one set piece after another. Jaa's athleticism delivers in spades what other films and action stars have promised.

Certainly much of the credit for the film should also go to writer-director Prachya Pinkaew. That the operative word for staging fight scenes is choreography is not lost on Pinkaew. The fight scenes are filmed in the same way that Astaire or Kelly are filmed dancing, with Jaa's body fully in frame to capture all of his movement. Everything is shot so that the viewer has a clear sense of the action at all times. Pinkaew occassionally will edit a specific moment so that it is seen repeated in three shots from different angles. What makes the action set pieces more amazing to watch is that there is no wire work or special effects involved. Pinkaew outdoes even the best Hong Kong action directors with his ability to film and edit, and should be required viewing by Hollywood directors who failed to understand that it's not enough to have Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan or Jet Li in front of the camera. Pinkaew, like Corey Yuen, knows that fight scenes are most meaningful when filmed like a musical number. Even a scene involving the little Thai taxis called Tuk-Tuks has eye-popping stunt driving.

The action scenes take up so much of the film that it is sometimes easy to forget the story everything hangs on, with Jaa as a countryboy in search of the stolen head of a statue revered by the villagers. An underwater scene involving the discovery of ancient statues as a dreamlike quality. There are Buddhist underpinnings to the narrative which can be viewed as an allegory about the defense and protection of Thai culture. Most people will simply enjoy Ong-Bak has an action film that doesn't dawdle with too much exposition. For those who can appreciate the choreography of fight choreography, this is like watching Fred and Ginger, only with deadlier kicks.

Posted by peter at August 26, 2006 10:04 AM

Comments

The hype is, for once, true. Tony Jaa is, indeed, the heir to Bruce and Samo and Jackie.

But (and I think this is the Achilles heel that afflicts many otherwise interesting Thai movies) the acting in Ong Bak is lousy...

Posted by: Cultural Snow at August 27, 2006 08:00 AM

I would have liked this film a lot more if they hadn't felt compelled to show an instant replay of about half of the stunts. It's not NFL coverage, it's a film....

Posted by: Tuwa at August 30, 2006 06:21 AM