Friday, October 06, 2006

Ong-Bak (2003) (Prachya Pinkaew)

Evoking the duality of good and bad through the pastoral simplicity of the Thai countryside and the seedy underbelly of Bangkok’s prostitution and drug trade, “Ong-Bak” argues its principles with a brutally honest knee to the face of the West’s creeping cultural domination of Asia. The filmmakers present this as a homage to the visual masters in Besson, Spielberg and most of all the glut of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan fighting vehicles that saw them fleeting from hordes of non-descript assailants through literally tight spaces. Tony Jaa’s prototypical monastic role as an avenging warrior for the lower rung of Thailand is no different from his role in this film’s follow-up international moneymaker, “Tom Yum Goong” or more particularly known as “The Protector”.

Other than its similarities in characters, Jaa has to retrieve his temple’s talismanic Buddha statue head (the titular Ong-Bak) that is being held for ransom by Bangkok druggist, Don instead of being commissioned to rescue his elephants from animal traders in its structural and thematic progeny, “Tom Yum Goong”. The stoic (by choice?), reticent country boy is thrust into a dodgy and faced with dangers at every corner, mostly by evil and greedy men trying to make a quick buck from Jaa’s expertise with his elbows and knees.

The most apparent hint of the veracious nationalism that “Ong-Bak” suffuses between its prolonged chase sequences and high kicks to head are set in the dingy underground fighting club where patrons of all nationalities and races huddle together, hand on each other’s shoulders while corralling a motley collection of ribald pugilists hoping to best each other blow for blow to receive that plate of prize money.

In steps Jaa with his tattered temple habits, unaware of the monetary reverence for such an occasion. As the newly crowned fighting champion rushes towards Jaa with his fists clenched, up goes Jaa’s knee to deliver a knockout that silences the raucous crowd. In yet another scrap at the same club, a brawny Aussie lout bellows across the room to Jaa’s disinterested character after nearly decimating his previous opponent who jumped in to rescue a damsel as said lout was groping her repeatedly. Rounding off his character as best the writers could, his soft spot for rescuing distressed women prevails and Jaa unleashes a torrent of body blows onto the racist, sexist and eventually vanquished miscreant, resulting in the long overdue return to the main plot.

Playing as though through a series of videogame levels varying in difficulty, the settings and pliable environments start to change but not the fighters. Each opponent are nothing but fodder to the invincible Jaa as he dispatches each one of them with astonishingly legerdemain and a refreshingly straightforward temerity unseen in any city boy that knows what’s best for him and his limps. This machine of a man probably leaves behind a hundred men in his wake until he reaches the tough final boss stage, the right hand stooge of the villainous old man with a neat idiosyncrasy suggesting either a barely breathing, handicapped warning label or a “live every moment till life crashes down on you” type of attitude. “Ong-Bak” is appropriately billed as brilliantly choreographed escapist fare that presents to us a man without personality and without emotions, just a moral imperative that transcends life and death.

Rating: 3½ out of 5


At 3:04 pm, Anonymous ninky said...

great review justin. thanks for the talking points it gave ;)

do another soon k?


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