Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ong-bak (Thailand, 2003)

(Trailer) When it comes to plots, Thai director Prachya Pinkaew's movie Ong-bak has one so old and so slim that it is a miracle that the film is as entertaining as it is. Basically: good boy from the country goes to the big bad city on a mission where he defeats and is defeated but remains true to his mission and finally saves the day and leaves the big bad city behind him to go back home. In Ong-bak, Tony Jaa is Ting, the good boy that is on the mission. He also happens to be a young master of Muay Thai, a tradition-rich form of kick boxing also known as "The Art of the Eight Limbs" that is the national sport of Thailand (the "eight limbs" are the hands, shins, elbows and knees).
One day a low-level thug named Don (Wannakit Siriput) comes to Ting's village and steals the head of the local Buddha statue called Ong-bak. The true soul that he is, Ting volunteers to retrieve the head and journeys to Bangkok, where he ends up an unwelcome guest of ex-fellow villager Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a young man who has long since left his country-bumpkin past behind him and now crawls through life as an incompetent low-rent con man (named "George"). Although Ting is a Buddhist who has promised his master never to use his fighting skills without reason or for personal gain, all cards always land in a way that requires him to use his prodigious talents. Numerous fight and chase scenes later—including a truly fabulous chase incorporating an untold number of with three-wheeled scooter-taxis and a mega-cool scene during which Ting kicks butt while on fire—not only does Humlae regain his sense of honor, but the mismatched pair regain Ong-bak’s head and also bring the downfall of mobster Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilal). (Although, in truth, one could argue that Humlae actually loses more than he gains, but this could be a matter of cultural attitude.) The movie ends with the parade honoring Ong-bak's return to the rural village.
One-time stunt man Tony Jaa does a star-making in Ong-bak, and it is not without reason that he is being hailed by some as the next heir to (take your pick) Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li. Fit and good looking, Tony Jaa's emotionless straight face permits one to read what one wants while his stunt work and fighting skills leaves one either breathless or winching in amazement and/or imagined pain. Director Prachya Pinkaew often shows the more astoundingly nimble stunts from three of four angles, and from every angle they are eye-openers. No hidden wires here: when the villagers being tossed from the tree in the movie's opening scene land on the ground with a thump after falling untold yards, there are no edits, nor are there any when Jaa glides under cars or across tables or defends abused women or runs over the heads of a line of bad guys. (Of course, as happens only in films of this ilk, even when ten bad guys are out to get him at the same time, they always attack one after the other, but hell, that happens to Batman too and no one ever complains about it, so why should we here?)
Clocking in at around 104 minutes, Ong-bak is truly a fun ride that easily feels as if it were in fact a lot shorter—something that many other films of lesser length cannot claim. An adrenaline rush of fight and chase scenes that defy believability and gravity, the film's liberal dose of humor and excellent production values helps make Ong-bak one of the most enjoyable and watchable sock-'em, knock-'em films to come out of the Far East in a long time. Definitely the right choice for anyone who in any way has any slight affinity for vintage Jackie Chan or Eastern fight films in general.

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