February 11, 2005

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew Starring Tony Jaa

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The recent crop of Thai films filling festivals and theatres worldwide offers a diverse array of idiosyncratic fare such as Blissfully Yours and Tears of the Black Tiger as well as pop flicks like The Eye and The Legend of Suriyothai. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is one of the latter, an homage to Bruce Lee that's also tailor-made to showcase the kickboxing prowess of its star Tony Jaa. Even though its generic storylines lack punch, the film is far from weak. Without benefits of stuntmen or CGI, it kicks the bar of its genre up several notches such that it might become a cult favourite and turn Jaa into a superstar.

The film opens amidst a timeless rural backdrop where the theft of a Buddha statue's head jeopardizes the fortunes of a small village. An orphan raised by a monk (Woranard Tantipidok) and trained in Muay Thai, Jaa's character Ting is the town's only hope of retrieving its treasure. After villagers have pitched in their life savings, Ting journeys to a seedy Bangkok where music video-style slow motion, fades, jump cuts and an inauthentic hip-hop score scream culture shock.

Despite his master's warning never to unleash his unmatched martial arts skills on ignorant poor souls, Ting is resolved to get back the plunder at all costs. The thief (Wannakit Siriput) conveniently hangs out at an underground fight club where an assortment of challengers awaits, including the stereotypical Caucasian villain (Nick Kara) who instigates a fight by roughing up a lady and talking such bewildering if not infuriating trash as "Thai women go to my country to become hookers!" What ensues is reminiscent of Lee's squashing racial oppression and rallying Asian representation on film, the thematic context that Jackie Chan and Jet Li never explicitly break into perhaps for fear it might alienate their international audiences.

Director Prachya Pinkaew packs Ong Bak with fights, chases and explosions to compensate for its general lack of plots, but he adds an indigenous flavour - such as utilizing local three-wheel taxis for a car chase - to keep these hackneyed elements fresh. Still, none of this would be possible without Jaa. Aside from giving a disarmingly earnest performance, he is a one-man special effect who defies gravity without wires. His shtick might get old some day, but for now it'd be impossible to take your eyes off of him.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.