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September 16, 2010

Raging Phoenix

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Deu suay doo
Rashane Limtrakul - 2009
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In a more perfect world, Thai martial arts films would have the equivalent of John Ford, or Vincente Minnelli, or at least another Prachya Pinkaew. What I mean by this is someone who knows exactly where to place the camera, so that when watching the film, there is no second guessing, at least from myself. It's not that Rashane is bad, as much as there were too many times when there seemed to me better choices to have been made in the framing of much of the action. While the fight scenes were never as visually incoherent as, for example, what Brett Ratner does with Jackie Chan in the Rush Hour movies, neither is there the clean, clear framing with minimal editing that Prachya has in the best moments of Ong-Bak or Chocolate.

And it's not that Rashane had a lack of visual ideas. What makes Raging Phoenix frustrating is that there are some very unique sets where the action takes place. Various abandoned locations - a small amusement park, an old, elaborate church, and the ruins of a building seemingly in the middle of nowhere are among the settings. One of the rooms in the villain's underground fortress is bathed in a phosphorescent blue. The only newish building in the film is a small, modern looking house by the beach, which I wouldn't mind calling home. The only weak spot is a CGI created pit, extremely large and deep, connected by several overlapping, rickety bridges made of wood and rope. It's only in what tangentially resembles the real world that there is a sense of danger.

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Raging Phoenix was largely designed to be another showcase for Yanin Vismistananda, popularly known as JeeJa. There is more acting here than in her debut, Chocolate. JeeJa plays a young woman, Deu, who has had a bad day of being dumped both by her boyfriend, and by the rock band where she was the drummer. Deu handles her pain by getting drunk, not tipsy, but the kind where standing is impossible, and one gets sick in the stomach. Deu is almost kidnapped by some people driving around in a van, lead by the obligatory (in Thai movies) ugly ladyboy. She is rescued by Sanin, who fights several bad guys at once. Sanin and his pals, Dogshit, Pigshit and Bullshit, have united to fight someone named Jaguar, who has been kidnapping attractive young women. The young men have lost the women they love to Jaguar, and are seeking revenge. Deu joins the men, learning their unique form of martial arts that involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol. The sequence devoted to Deu learning how to drink and fight from Sanin is the best realized section of Raging Phoenix.

Sanin is played by Kazu Patrick Tang. In the DVD supplement with some of the cast and crew discussing the film, Tang speaks in French. I was wondering if Luc Besson, with his frequent collaboration with Chinese and Thai martial artists, knew of Tang. As it turns out, Tang had a supporting role in Danny the Dog, released in the U.S. as Unleashed. In an elaborate fight scene, Tang demonstrates his proficiency with a combination of Parkour, hip hop dancing, and Muay Thai boxing against a team of guys on deadly powerskip devices with serious cutting edges, hopping around like a gang of malevolent kangaroos. Tang spent four years of doing nothing but training prior to the filming of Raging Phoenix. With the apparent retirement of Tony Jaa, Tang is another young man who could well be a new action movie star.

The form of martial arts performed by Deu and the gang is called Meyraiyuth. The inspiration comes from Drunken Kung Fu. It's a fictional form of martial arts that combines break dancing and other forms of choreography, both in dance and fighting. The fighting is superb. It's the filming of the fighting that is disappointing with the camera too far to the side, or too much cutting when allowing the camera to show the action in longer, continuous takes would have been better. As for JeeJa, she's allowed to show a bit more range as an actress here, and could well have comic potential indicated in her first big scene - Hell hath no fury like a female drummer who has no problem tossing away the sticks in the middle of a set in a crowded nightclub. JeeJa, all 100 pounds of her, definitely has the martial arts moves. What's next is a filmmaker who can make full use of her acting chops.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 16, 2010 10:52 PM