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May 11, 2011

Muay Thai Fighter

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Muay Thai Chaiya
Kongkiat Khomsiri - 2007
Lions Gate Films Region 1 DVD

Almost four years after its initial release in Thailand, comes another under the radar release of a Thai movie. Beyond the nearly generic English title is a film that was one one of the more critically acclaimed and award winning films in Thailand. The film could also be said to be Kongkiat Khomsiri's Raging Bull with a bit of On the Waterfront and Goodfellas tossed into the mix. Kongkiat's film is nowhere near as good. The film is more than a series of action set pieces, following how easily dreams get corrupted.

Taking place in the 1970s, three young men with goals of becoming professional fighters leave their small fishing village in southern Thailand to go to Bangkok. They find out that the purity and idealism of the sporting world that they use to know is replaced by gangsters who control the various aspects of the boxing profession, with fixed fights, and drugged fighters. One of the young men, Pao, manages to stay clean and eventually is one of the top fighters. Piak, the fighter who had shown the most potential in the beginning, finds himself fighting in underground cage matches, and with the third friend, Samaw, takes on work as a hit man for an overly ambitious hood.

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Kongkiat made his reputation with a couple of the Art of the Devil films. While this film is also unabashedly violent, the motivation is for a kind of hyper realism rather than just scaring the viewer. What Kongkiat is really interested in, aside from showing the different forms of fighting, is an exploration of the conflicts of loyalty, between the three men, their respective families, and their professional allegiances. Within a few shots of dancers and a puppet show, Kongkiat also is interested in the questions of how traditional Thai culture can be maintained within an increasingly urban, and Westernized society. While the bulk of the film takes place in the mean streets of Bangkok, Kongkiat has several moments of visual lyricism with scenes in the countryside and the seaside village. A commentary on some of the action is provided by some vintage Thai pop love songs.

One might also look at the inclusion of stuntman Don Ferguson, as a fighter named Diamond Sullivan, as something of a metaphor for western adoption of Asian culture. Sullivan is top fighter and the one Pao has to beat in the film's final match. Sullivan is presented as an arrogant man who takes steroids and isn't above fighting dirty. I don't think it's giving too much away to note that Pao emerges triumphant, but the two go through some very heavy beatings.

The two best action sequences belong to Piak, played by Akara Amarttayakul. In a part that won him the Best Actor award from the Thailand National Film Association, Akara shows his stuff in two fights, a cage match taking on all comers, and a finale against the bodyguards and hired thugs of the two gangsters who control boxing in Bangkok. Akara uses his fists, swords, almost anything he can get his hands on. There's more to Akira's performance than his fighting skills, as Piak's story is one of the two main narratives, as the fighter who lost everything to easy money and easier sex, redeeming himself at the very end.

A DVD extra that seems curiously truncated features an interview with Kongkiat explaining his interest in Chaiya fighting. Those familiar with The Art of the Devil films may be delighted to know that Kongkiat is currently working on a 3-D horror film. As for his last film, Slice the slasher tale written by Wisit Sasanatieng, there is no English language subtitled DVD at this time. Could it be possible that the company that released the Saw and Hostel movies could be scared of a violent horror film that scared up some glowing reviews?

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Posted by peter at May 11, 2011 08:42 AM


Interesting. Great review. I definitely need to check this out. Thanks.

Posted by: Neil at May 11, 2011 09:18 AM