Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003) — A unique martial arts outing

“The mustang has galloped on your face!”

Shalen’s rating: Four out of five giant Buddha heads.

Shalen’s review: This could very well be the best martial arts movie I’ve ever seen.

The genre has a rich history in cinema, from the doomed magnetism of Bruce Lee through the manic, inspired antics of Jackie Chan and the quieter showmanship of Jet Li. There are better and worse films from all of these artists, and there are of course scores of imitators, some better and some worse. This is not even considering, say, the earlier Japanese television shows like Red Shadow and the numerous Hattori Hanso series.

So Ong Bak has some very large shoes to fill. And it does that well. It has a way to go toward plot and setting; there’s nothing here to rival the gorgeousness of Crouching Tiger or Once Upon a Time in China films. There’s barely a plot, and the dialogue is for the most part terribly bad. Of course, our version is translated from Thai via very poor subtitles, although for me personally this tends to heighten rather than detract from the entertainment value of the experience. For example, a better translation might have removed the fact that one character is variously referred to as “Hum Lai,” “George,” and “Dirty Balls.” Ouch.

But these aren’t the real reasons for watching this movie.

Most martial arts films focus on Karate, Jujitsu, or the apparently most camera-friendly of martial arts, Kung Fu.* Not so with Ong Bak. This film was made in Thailand, the dialogue is almost all in Thai, and the martial art on display is Muay Thai. Muay Thai is not like the other styles I mention, and you will know exactly what I mean when you have seen Tony Jaa elbow-drop on someone’s head starting from a standing jump several yards away. Elbows and knees are an important part of Muay Thai, giving it a slightly jerky striking-cobra look all its own.

After having seen this film maybe three or four times now, I still can barely believe no wires were used, but the DVD features show Mr. Jaa repeating some of his film stunts live. He seems literally able to leap more than his own height vertically, he’s insanely flexible, and many of his moves appear to defy the laws of physics. Olympic gymnasts can’t do some of the things he does. It’s impossible to watch without awe.

This is good, because the main plot involves a villain in a wheelchair who speaks through a voder, collects the heads of statues of deities, and (MILD SPOILER) is eventually crushed to death by a giant, smiling Buddha head.

Go back and read that sentence again.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Plenty of other things in this movie translate just fine, like the hooker with a heart of gold, the tournament featuring people from various countries with prominent single characteristics,** and the large groups of thugs that tend to attack one or two at a time. (“Hey! Where did THAT guy come from?”) Apparently there was a limited number of stunt men, because some of the same ones are reused with different wigs on, too.

Tony Jaa, the star of the piece, doesn’t have tremendously impressive acting skills. I’d put him around the same level as Jet Li, wherein he has mastered the “grim” and “surprised” facial expressions but is some way off from Jackie Chan’s “Aiee! We’re gonna die!” look. This doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t need to act for me to buy every single one of his movies. He just has to keep bouncing off the walls and inflicting pain and suffering upon large groups of hapless henchmen, and I’ll be happy.

This film wasn’t heavily promoted in the United States. I heard of it through some martial artist friends of my sister’s. This is a real shame, because Ong Bak really is an absolute must-see for the fan of martial arts cinema.*** Hopefully with the advent of Mr. Jaa’s second film, The Protector, this one will become more widely available on DVD. Either way, if you’re a genre fan, it’s absolutely worth your money.

*Of course, saying “Kung Fu” is sort of like saying “ballroom dancing,” given the number of schools and styles that exist under that umbrella, but an ignorant Western spectator like myself is never going to know them all.
**Such as the surly Australian who gets his face galloped upon by the mustang (see quotes section). Given this and The Protector’s attitude toward Australians, I’m starting to think that the Thai people feel about them roughly as the Chinese feel about the colonial English.
***Or the fan of seeing lots of people get hit in the head with the Flying Elbow of Justice. I know I’m one.

Didja notice?

  • Note to urban baddies: never, never mess with the naïve yet wiry small-town rube. You will get your butt handed to you every single time.
  • Jeez, that girl’s voice could cut glass. Nails on a chalk board, I tell you.
  • Gee, that’s a… really unfortunate nickname, Hum Lai…
  • Drugs are bad for us, you say?
  • Funny how many street thugs use archaic weaponry and know martial arts. Apparently they train a lot in between pimping and smoking crack.
  • Everyone should have a hobby, but maybe he should have started with collecting stamps.
  • Never espouse atheism while standing next to a large, tippy idol.
  • Best chase scene ever.
  • Don has a poster for the movie Spy Game in his apartment. [Thanks Star Opal!]

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