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January 28, 2010

Fireball

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Tarchon, Ta/Chon
Thanakorn Pongsuwan - 2009
Lionsgate Entertainment Region 1 DVD

As if to reinforce what I had written about Thai movies just a couple of days ago, the first Thai movie to get a U.S. DVD release is a genre film, marketed primarily for enthusiasts of films devoted to extreme martial arts. Essentially, the plot involves a man, or group of men, who are put in an arena to fight it out, usually with no rules, until the lone survivor is declared the winner. There may be a sub-plot involving one of the men being put in this situation reluctantly or by force, and having some kind of altruistic motivation for kicking the shit or murdering his opponent(s). That Lionsgate has brought Fireball for DVD for a specific audience was made clear by the trailers for their other releases, two of which had virtually the same plot and cast.

Tai is released from prison under mysterious circumstances when his bail is paid. He finds his twin brother, Tan, in a coma. Tan's girlfriend, Pang, says that Tan attributed his many injuries to a basketball game. Tai goes wandering around under the Bangkok highways to find several pickup basketball games. To make one of the teams, instead of shooting hoops, he has to demonstrate his fighting skill. Making everyone believe he is actually, Tan, Tai becomes involved with an undergound league that plays Fireball, a combination of basketball and muay thai boxing, run by a consortium of gangsters. Tai's goal is to find out who nearly killed his brother, and to make enough money to pay for an expensive operation.

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Film critic Roger Garcia, who wrote about Fireball for its presentation at the Udine (Italy) Far East Film Festival last year, thought of the film as a political allegory about present day Thailand. I'm not certain about reading the film that deeply, there is a critique about professional sports. This is made clear in a scene when Den, a team owner, explains the game to a man unfamiliar with the rules of fireball. Two teams of five player compete to either make a basket, or have the last man standing, whichever comes first. Weapons such as knives and steel bars are allowed. While the game itself is designed to attract an audience of rabid fans, the real point of the game is a source of gambling revenue for the team owners. Team players are disposable, while the team owner reap the benefits of games that are sometimes fixed.

Thanakorn's decision to shoot most of the film using hand held cinematography works against the film. In theory, the idea was to give the games a greater sense of immediacy. In execution, there are too many moments when the action is unclear. One of the action scenes that works best is of two players fighting it out in the rain, probably because everything in the shots is highly digitized and sharply defined. Based on this film and his previous Demon Warriors, Thanakorn is at his best when he puts his trust in images that speak for themselves, without the unnecessary hyperventilation of guys chasing after the action with shaky camera work.

Where Fireball really worked best for me was off the court. The scenes of the players personal lives is also an examination of live along the edges of Bangkok. One of the players works selling televisions at a department store, another is a butcher. The butcher is also biracial, part black, allowing for a mention of Thai racism. One of the players is making money to pay rent for his mother, who lives in what is basically a glorified shack located under a highway. He is also hoping to pay for his little brother's education. Another player has an ongoing relationship with a prostitute. Somewhere deep in its heart, Fireball could have been the Thai equivalent to such film noir sports film like Robert Wise's The Set-Up. One of the film's four credited writers is Taweewat Wantha, writer-director of the hilariously anarchic S.A.R.S. Wars, making me wonder if Fireball might have had a more satirical edge in earlier stages of conception. A prequel that explains the origins of fireball during the Viet-Nam war is currently in the works. If Fireball is any indication, than Thanakorn is a filmmaker who needs to learn to explore his ideas and premises with more care, rather than losing the very aspects that would make for an interesting film to a barrage of furious technique.

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Posted by peter at January 28, 2010 12:50 AM