Monday, August 15, 2011

Ong-bak II (Thailand / 2008)

Way back in 2003, a Thai martial arts film entitled Ong-bak made some justified big waves and introduced a new martial arts master, Tony Jaa, to the world. Ong-bak was an at times violent and at times almost sweet film that had a plot so old that it literally creaked, but the visual trickery of director Panna Rittikrai's camerawork and the amazing physicality of the main star made the film a thrilling cinematic treat. It was, and remains, a film well worth watching.
Ong-bak II is also well worth watching, though it is indeed a different cup of tea than the original Ong-bak. For one, despite its title, it is hardly a sequel to the first film, and its definition as a prequel appears as little more than pure unadulterated and calculated mercantilism.* The original film took place in today's Thailand; Ong-bak II may still take place on the same continent, but the setting is set almost 600 years earlier. And whereas the first film was about a young villager out to do the right thing (i.e., regain the stolen idol of his village) who is more-or-less continually forced to use his abilities in martial arts, Ong-bak II is an unadulterated revenge flick, no less and no more.
But what the hell, Ong-bak II is also all the better for such differences, for it stands alone as a film all of its own, and as such is much more enjoyable than a simple rehash of the first would probably have been. And like the first film, many a scene in Ong-bak II literally leaves your jaw on the floor in amazement or has you noticeably winching in commiseration for the pain that those on the screen must have felt when making the film. The film literally leaves you feeling bruised black and blue without once ever being touched.
The plot is hardly complicated, you've seen it a thousand flicks before, but it serves well enough as a framework for the outstanding action and fight scenes. An evil empire, the Kingdom of Ayutthayan, wants to expand and is killing everyone standing in its way. Young Tien (Natdanai Kongthong), a royal student of dance, is saved by a lone loyal soldier when his nobleman father, Lord Siha Decho (Santisuk Promsiri), is assassinated along with his wife. Tien ends up in the hands of violent slave traders, and deemed too incorrigible to control, is tossed into an alligator pit. He survives thanks to a knife tossed to him by Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), the leader of the Pha Beek Khrut, a group of marauders, who takes the young Tien as a young son and trains him to be a great warrior. But Chernang has secrets of his own, and they come to light after the adult Tien goes to avenge his parents by killing the warlord, Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang), who had his father killed...
Ong-bak II suffers from some prime bad-fitting wigs and glued-on beards, but whenever the action kicks in the filmmakers and actors are all obviously in their mettle. And despite its rather generic plot, it's also a surprisingly ambitious one; it may be a simple revenge tale, but it obviously strives hard to be an epic tale of revenge – the surprise twist of the final fight (and death) is almost Shakespearean in nature.
But it is also the obvious desire to make an epic that almost undoes the movie. All the problems that went into the making of the film aside – for the details, read the production info here at Wikipedia – the sucker-punch ending comes so out of the blue and unexpected that it is less disappointing than unsatisfying, especially since the final voiceover about karma initially give the impression that the film is really ended. The fact of the matter is that the film was too ambitious to fit into one movie, causing the film to develop into a two-parter during its troubled production.
Good so, for were Ong-bak II truly to end where the film does, the film would seem less one with a Hemingwayesque ending than one with no real ending.* Seldom has a film left the viewer feeling left more in the cold water – the nearest comparable sudden endings that come to mind would be the Hollywood productions The Empire Strikes Back (1980 / trailer) or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006 / trailer), which both end, so to speak, mid-sentence. The desire for more more more is also extremely amplified by the fact that the last big fight scene introduces at least a half-dozen characters that literally cry for more screen time, the most memorable being "Crow Ghost" (Chupong Changprung), who seems to be the main antagonist of Ong-bak III (2010 / trailer).
Ong-bak II, despite the obvious commercialism of its title, is solid and exciting martial arts flick that barrels along at top speed and offers both top-class and painful fight scenes as well as actions sequences – a run over the backs of running elephants, for example, or the fight with the alligator in a mud pit – that literally leave you stunned. The film is killer!
Now to dig up Part III from somewhere!

*This statement was written prior to seeing Part III, the review of which will follow in a few weeks.

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