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Friday November 21, 2003

Selling a Thai style

By ZACK YUSOF

Make no mistake, high-octane Thai action-thriller Ong Bak is certainly making waves with audiences worldwide, even attracting the attention and praise of renowned French director Luc Besson. StarTwo met up with the cast and director of the hit movie while they were in Singapore recently to talk about making action movies, the emergence of Thai cinema and the growing phenomenon that is Muay Thai. 

FOR former stuntman and martial arts expert Tony Jaa, emulating his heroes Bruce Lee and Jet Li kicking bad guy’s butt on the silver screen is the happy culmination of a gruelling seven years training. 

Jaa, whose real name is Phanom Yeeram, follows in the footsteps of his heroes in the ultra hip Muay Thai boxing action flick Ong Bak, to be released in Malaysia on Dec 4.  

But here lies the difference. Instead of kung fu, the 27-year old stuntman-turned-actor is banking on audiences falling in love with the traditional Thai martial art of Muay Thai. While many young actors hope to trade on their good looks in order to break into the world of movie- making, Jaa spent close to a decade training in Muay Thai, in the hopes of landing himself a role in a martial arts movie.  

Rising from humble beginnings, Jaa was schooled at the Maha Sarakham Physical Education College, Bangkok, in martial arts where he went on to become a medal-winning exponent of krabi-Krabong, a Thai martial art involving knives and sticks, before focusing on Muay Thai.  

One of Bangkok's unique features highlighted as a backdrop to Ong Bak's action sequences is this famous backpackers hangout Khao San Road.
But never too far away from his mind were ambitions of becoming a movie star. When his father objected to his decision to venture into movie-making, Jaa became so depressed that he even contemplated suicide, such was the strength of his conviction. Pretty soon though, Jaa’s hard work and dedication began to pay off and get him noticed.  

For Jaa, it was the just reward for years of self-sacrifice.  

“I have always liked martial arts. From the age of eight, I began watching martial arts movies featuring people like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. After the films, I would go and try to act out scenes from the movies ... that’s really how I started.  

“It was only after I joined the physical education institute in Bangkok that I started doing it seriously and was taught all the different aspects of martial arts especially Muay Thai,” revealed Jaa, who belied his on-screen tough guy image by being soft spoken and contemplative during a specially arranged one to one interview in Singapore recently. 

In person, the youthful-looking Jaa comes across as a polite and laidback kind of chap who speaks in hushed tones and smiles a lot, not at all like the muscle bound fighting machine one sees on the big screen. 

Jaa began his film career as a stuntman for celebrated Thai action-filmmaker Phanna Ritthikrai, who later became his trainer. In 1996, Jaa got his first big break when he beat dozens of rivals to play Robin Shou’s stunt double in the Hollywood production Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Jaa followed up his Hollywood sojourn with a stint as Thai actor Ruengsak Loychusak’s double in the hit television series Insee Daeng (Red Eagle). 

After years of perseverance and hard work, Jaa is finally ready to emerge from the anonymity of doubling for other actors to star as the leading man in his own action vehicle.  

Ong Bak centres on a sacred Buddha statuette which is stolen from a rural village. It soon becomes the task of a young man, Ting (Jaa), to track the thief down to Bangkok and reclaim the religious treasure.  

Once there, Ting hooks up with one of his fellow visitors George, played by Mum Jokmok, and feisty street urchin Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol) both of whom promise to help. Along the way, Ting gets into action with his astounding athleticism and traditional Muay Thai fighting skills to combat his adversaries as well as make some money in the underground boxing scene.  

The stunts and action are a beautiful showcase of obscure and elaborate moves from the ancient art of Muay Thai. Director Prachya Pinkaew does a good job localising all the action by incorporating prominent Bangkok features such as the tuk-tuk (Thailand’s version of the trishaw) and the famous back-packers hangout Khao San Road as a backdrop to all of the action. 

Basically Ong Bak is Pinkaew’s admirable attempt to create a full-blooded Thai martial arts action film utilising Jaa’s eye-catching repertoire of kinetic martial arts moves.  

Produced and filmed by Sahamongkol Films, the project was given the greenlight when Pinkaew viewed a martial arts demo tape by Jaa and his mentor Phanna, and was impressed enough to make a film with them. 

For Pinkaew, Ong Bak is a handy vehicle to promote as well as educate the masses in the ways of Muay Thai. Every fight sequence seen in Ong Bak is the fruit of Jaa and Phanna’s labour and the result of years of intense preparation and practice. After thoroughly researching the art of Muay Thai, Jaa and his trainer claim that Ong Bak is the first film to include over 100 little-known Muay Thai stances and moves. 

Four years in the making, director Pinkaew is understandably proud of the film’s end results.  

“Muay Thai is a national art form and to be able to bring it to the big screen is something to be taken seriously,” Prachya told the audience before the movie’s premier at the closing ceremony of the Bangkok International Film Festival earlier this year. 

Speaking at a recent press conference held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront, Singapore, the stocky, soft-spoken director had this to say about his first directorial effort for eight years: “Over the years, I have managed to watch a lot of Hong Kong fighting movies which have become well known all over the world and I just felt that it was time Thailand was able to present Thai Boxing to the world through films,” said Pinkaew. 

Ong Bak’s budget was about US$2mil (RM7.6mil). In relative terms, it’s considered quite a high budget as most Thai films normally come in around the US$1mil (RM3.8mil) mark.  

So far, Ong Bak has played to rave reviews at film festivals around the world. At the recent Midnight Madness programme at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, Pinkaew’s film was the big hit and was picked as the festival’s official selection.  

In Thailand, Ong Bak has raked in about 300mil baht (RM28.5mil) since its October release. The movie will be released in other parts of Asia and Europe next year.  

As an added bonus for everyone involved in Ong Bak, French director Luc Besson has bought the world-wide rights for the film. For Pinkaew and Jaa, the way Ong Bak seems to have struck a chord with audiences around the world has been simply amazing and both see the movie’s success as a handy vehicle to further promote Muay Thai to the world. Having somebody with as much clout as Luc Besson behind the movie surely can’t be too bad for ticket sales either. 

Rumour has it that a friend of Besson’s e-mailed Pinkaew and said that he watched the movie, really wished that he had the opportunity to produce it and had given it five stars in his review.  

Eventually Pinkaew and Besson did actually meet up, much to delight of the Thai filmmaker who remains a huge fan of the Frenchmen’s movies. The result? Future film collaboration between the two is now being mooted.  

“We met during a film festival and I asked him about the rumour of his friend liking Ong Bak and giving it five stars and Besson confirmed it to be true. Besson has already thought of a story idea for a movie for Tony Jaa. So now, we are at the discussion stage. Apparently there will be Hollywood stars acting in the movie; it will be in English. Luc Besson will be producing it and I will direct,” revealed Pinkaew.  

He added: “At first, my only plan was to make the movie as good as possible. I thought that if this movie achieved a certain level of success, perhaps I would have the opportunity to work with Besson, if possible as my producer. I saw his movie with Jet Li and I knew that he has a very good understanding of the Asian way of fighting. I actually had a kind of coded message for Besson in the movie.  

“If you remember during the movie, there was a scene when the tuk tuk falls off a bridge and hits a building during the big chase, on the left side of the screen on a pillar, there was a message for Besson stuck up there. Most people would not have been aware of this but the message simply said, ‘Luc Besson, we are waiting for you.’ “ 

Despite being basically the kind of action movie that requires a minimum amount of brain power, Ong Bak has much to recommend it by. One of the most striking scenes in the movie has to be the chase through the streets of Bangkok on foot, shot by Pinkaew over an intense 10-day period during the rainy season. In this sequences, Jaa executes a host of improbable and highly nimble moves without the aid of wires or CGI that simply has to be seen to be believed.  

High splits jump over sharp tools, jump (not dive) through a small coil of barb wire, a sideways aerial jump between two panes of glass, double twisting back flip off a table, double front tuck over a group of people, running over five people, jumping over a car, front splits sliding under a moving truck, leaping off a scaffolding – Jaa does it all with the minimum of fuss and a hell of a lot of agility.  

Most of the scenes are shot from two different angles, sometimes in slow motion to show audiences Jaa is indeed the real deal and that he did indeed execute all those moves. 

As an action flick Ong Bak’s stunt sequences rank high and are on par with some of the best chase and stunt scenes in celluloid history (the car chase scene in Bullitt, the bike chase scene in The Great Escape, the disorientating foot race in The French Connection). 

Another amazing sequence is the tuk-tuk chase scene through the crowded streets of Bangkok. One sequence has Jaa’s sidekick’s (Mum Jok Mok) double narrowly escaping his tuk-tuk as it falls off the edge of a severed freeway. There are also loads of sliding tuk-tuks (one right into the camera), Jaa jumping from one tuk-tuk to another, and some explosions. As far as chase scenes go, this one also manages to get the blood racing. 

But at the end of the day, Ong Bak is Tony Jaa’s movie and all about his incredible fighting skills. 

One of the most naturally gifted proponents of martial arts working today, Jaa is the natural successor to the likes of Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan. One of the reasons that Jaa’s fighting style seems so fresh is because it really is fresh.  

In Ong Bak, Jaa uses a style of fighting that most of us have not seen before and it certainly livens things up. Essentially a run-of-the-mill exploitation martial arts flick, Ong Bak transcends itself by going for broke with its visceral and yet graceful fight scenes.  

On the request of the film’s distributors Shaw Brothers, Jaa obligingly executed some moves with the help of some brave stuntmen for the assembled journalists and guests at the press conference in Singapore. There’s no doubt his man is for real. The kicks, the somersaults, the leaps – he does it all flawlessly. 

If you are a fan of action movies, chances are that you are truly going to enjoy Ong Bak. 

Ong Bak will be released in local cinemas on Dec 4.


 


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