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May 06, 2009

Ong Bak 2

Tony Jaa & Panna Rittikrai - 2008
Keris Video Region 3 DVD

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One of my favorite movies is The Bad and the Beautiful, a fictionalized story about Hollywood with characters modeled after several real life people both in front of, and behind the camera. There are satirical elements best recognized by those well versed in Hollywood history. I bring this classic film up only because I hope that a Thai filmmaker, ideally Wisit Sasanatieng or Taweewat Wantha, would make a film that was inspired by the making of Ong Bak 2. Nothing on screen has as much drama or comedy as the real life events of a young martial arts star given the opportunity to write and direct a big budget Thai film, going over budget and schedule, and walking off the set of an incomplete film to meditate in the jungle among the elephants. For those of us following the making of Ong Bak 2, there was a question about whether Thailand's biggest movie star had undone a career and lots of goodwill that began about three years ago when Jaa first burst upon the world scene.

There is a certain amount of difficulty in fairly evaluating Ong Bak 2 because it is not a sequel nor clearly a "prequel" to the first Ong Bak. Additionally, the film ends unresolved with a promised conclusion in the upcoming Ong Bak 3, which is also said to tie all three films together. Maybe it's a form of cultural misunderstanding, but much of what made the first Ong Bak a hit is thrown out on this new film. What I liked about the first film was that it was fast and funny. Seeing Tony Jaa defy gravity was an eye popping experience, but there was more to Ong Bak than a display of martial arts mastery. I also liked Ong Bak for introducing me to Petchtai Wongkamlao as George, the inept, small time hustler. The only way to really be fair to Ong Bak 2 is to ignore the title, and the accompanying expectations.

Taking place during the 15th Century, we first see a young boy riding on horseback with a man, chased by another rider. Caught in a trap of an awaiting army, the boy is knocked off his horse, his horse with the rider both shot by arrows. The boy is able to hide temporarily until found by a roving band of slave traders, who cage the boy. Taken out of his cage, the boy is tossed into a pit with a crocodile, providing entertainment for a tribal village. Seeing his ability to evade immediate death, a man tosses a knife to the boy who in turn kills the crocodile. Chaos ensues as the benevolent stranger is part of a group of men who have shown up to create havoc and steal goods from the village.

The young boy, Tien, of course grows up to be the character played by Jaa. Taken under the wing of Cher Nang, a leader of a band of land locked pirates, Tien becomes a master of a variety of martial arts. Gradually, it is revealed that as a boy, Tien witnessed the murder of his parents, members of a rival royal household. During an earlier time, Tien also spent time in a remote village, where his best friend was a young girl, Pim. Tien proves himself master of several forms of fighting, beating opponents bigger and seemingly stronger. Before accepting the offer to be Cher Nang's heir and leader of his gang of thieves, Tien goes off to avenge the death of his parents.

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While the first Ong Bak was light and often comic, this new film is dark, both visually and in terms of its story. While fans of fighting will probably savor the duels Jaa engages in to demonstrate his prowess, for me, Jaa is most fun to watch in his solo turns. One such moment of madness is of Jaa hopping onto a moving herd of elephants, jumping from on top one to another. Another scene is of Jaa performing an acrobatic dance. Jaa's athletic abilities are not to be disputed. Jaa does have one scene of fighting with a disguised Dan Chupong. In terms of Thai martial arts films, it's almost like getting Gene Kelly onscreen with Fred Astaire. Jaa shares with Kelly the sense of sheer force, while Chupong is like Astaire in his seeming to make every effort look easy. Pim returns as a youthful woman whose dance performance evokes classic images of Thailand. What I was not prepared for was a Tony Jaa so angry that he enjoys beating up his opponents.

What also surprised me was how much digital work went into Ong Bak 2. The first film boasted of lacking wires or other special effects, and the fight scenes were more cleanly photographed. This new film suffers from to many fragmented shots of fight scenes and too many digital effects. The main story may be unclear to those unfamiliar with Thai history, and some of the characters are best understood in terms of Thai culture and folklore. I'm not sure how much of the visual look of the film belongs to Jaa or to Panna Rittikrai, but there are more overhead shots to be found in Ong Bak 2 than in several Busby Berkeley musicals. Of course, more than some people might admit, martial arts films and musicals have things in common, employing choreographed action. I'm not sure if there is any commercial viability to making a Thai musical, but Jaa can be a very graceful presence on screen, not only being born to fight, but born to dance.

A couple of technical asides: Those interested in buying Ong Bak 2 should know that the DVD is playable anywhere regardless of the official designation. English subtitles are found using the remote control button. Ong Bak 2 is available from HK Flix

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Posted by peter at May 6, 2009 12:47 AM


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