Thailand. The dreamy paradise of white beaches, palm trees, placid water buffalo and benevolent saffron clad Buddhists, captured by every tourist brochure and cheesy holiday ad, contrasts vividly with the image of Bangkok and its dark underbelly of drugs, prostitution and the extreme violence of Thailand’s national sport, Muay Thai. Practitioners of this ancient martial art use elbows, knees and feet as well as fists in a no-holds barred fashion that would have the Marquis of Queensberry rolling in his grave.
Ong-Bak is a statue of the Buddha which protects the village of Nong Pra-du. When the head of the statue is stolen, the villagers are bereft, and determined to do whatever it takes to get the statue back. They choose as their representative, Ting (Jaa), an orphan raised by monks and schooled in an ancient system of Muay Thai – though forbidden to actually use his fighting skills. The villagers scrape together their meagre savings and send Ting on his way with their blessings. In Bangkok, Ting is the classic fish out of water, and when he finds his old friend and fellow villager George (Wongkamlao), is shocked to find that George, corrupted by city life, has become a small-time hustler. Ting enlists George’s help, but George is much more interested in running a series of scams with his friend Muay Lek (Yodkamol), and thus Ting finds himself drawn into the underworld of Bangkok’s illegal fight clubs.
I’m not a great devotee of the traditional martial arts movie so when the publicity notes say that Tony Jaa is the next Bruce Lee, I have no way of judging. This much, however, I do know: he’s definitely someone you’d want on your side in a fight. Ong Bak does away with the wire work and elegance of the Wu Xia films and goes back to a more brutal tradition of kung fu films – no wires, no cgi, no stunt doubles, just men beating the hell out of each other.
The story is a simple one of good and evil, with traditional lifestyles represented by the villagers contrasted with Western corruption shown most clearly through the character of Khom Tuan (Phongwilal), the crippled gang boss. He has thrown aside traditional values and cares only for money, stealing treasures and statues from simple villagers and selling them on for his own profit. His fighters are so corrupted that they use drugs to increase their strength. Khom Tuan is set against Ting’s clear-eyed goodness; Ting isn’t interested in money, fights only because he has to, and is prepared to die to restore Ong Bak to the village.
This is maybe where the story falls down a little, as Ting is a little too noble and pure to be interesting as a character – he does come across as some sort of Buddhist Terminator at times… Thankfully he gets to fight a lot, where he comes into his own, while the character development is focused on George and to a lesser extent Muay. Ting’s simple sincerity inspires George and Muay to rethink their lives.
Which all sounds a bit po-faced and dull, but fear not! The story comes to life in the fighting scenes which are brutal and very very cool, though there are a couple which were a bit too real for squeamish old me. There are moments of comedy, and once you realise that the film isn’t taking itself entirely seriously, everything picks up. The acting is a bit uneven – I found Pumwaree Yodkamol’s Muay almost unbearably irritating – and its all quite OTT, but in a sort of sweetly innocent way, a bit like the character of Ting.
PS The version of the film I saw had the original Thai soundtrack, but a new score is being written which should help with the pacing in some scenes.
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