Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior is a different kind of kick

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003), released as Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior in the U.S., is the first Thai martial arts movie your humble blogkeeper has watched following a host of movies from Hong Kong and South Korea.

I mention this because the fighting style is so noticeably different: more compact, close-in, with much greater use of elbows and forearms. And, when the combatants fly through the air, as combatants always do in such movies,  they often do so horizontally, parallel to the ground.  A fighter is apt to move in close to his opponent, looking about to fly past him, before reaching almost backward to strike with an elbow.

Here's a primer on the muay Thai fighting style that helped me understand why this movie looks different from Chinese and Korean martial arts movies. The movie also is free, for the most part, of Hong Kong-style wire fu.
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Many Asian martial arts movies send a hero from a rural village to a big city to get his job done. Here, young Ting (Tony Jaa), from a village in the northeastern region of Isan (ภาคอีสาน). volunteers to recover the head of the village's Buddha, stolen by a crime lord's henchman and taken to Bangkok.  The evil big-city trope is an old one, and I wonder when it became a part of Southeast Asian popular culture. In any case, this movie's first shots of Bangkok are among the most visually effective I can remember at conveying the frightening cacophony any big city, much less Bangkok, might seem to a newly arrived country boy.
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The movie includes graphic scenes of the use and effects of yaba, which Wikipedia calls "a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine." At least, that's what Wiki says the drug in question is. The fighters here smoke or inject the drug, though the Wiki article on yaba says it is not commonly injected. In any case, yaba's effects are unpleasant, and the scenes in which it appears constitute a strong anti-message.

Finally, the Buddha. I have only a passing acquaintance with East and Southeast Asian art, but I always had the idea that Southeast Asian Buddhas tended to be more heavy-lidded than their Chinese counterparts, with facial attitudes of pleasantly relaxed, drowsy contemplation (right). The huge head of one such figure forms striking background to the movie's climactic fight.

OK, enough with the sociological and aesthetic blather. I hope I've convinced you that there is much of interest in Ong-Bak even if your movie viewing does not normally include heroes who face down crowds of stick- and knife-wielding thugs and somersault over their heads while kicking the crap out of them. Recommended.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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21 Comments:

Anonymous Christopher G. Moore said...

There is a school in the Klong Toey district called Chakrit Muay Thai School. Foreigners enroll as well as Thais. Ballet, ambush, savage kicks and ritual pre-fight dance. Muay Thai has it all.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I take kung fu films over muay Thai films simply because the former are consistently more bonkers. Check out Master of the Flying Guillotine if you haven't seen it already and you'll see what I mean.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Christopher, I get the idea that ritual is part of several martial arts. But muay Thai, or at least the version in this movie, just looks markedly different. I won't go so far as to decamp for Thailand, get myself into fighting shape, and enroll in the achool, but I may to read a bit more about muay Thai.

Interesting that is should use the humble elbow, which other fighting arts seem to ignore it.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: Thanks for the recommendation. Ong-Bak is full of action involving flying taxis and all sorts of things, but I htink it only theatens to go bonkers once. You know the inevitable scene where the hero beats a tough oipponent, only to have one more step in his way as he tries to elave the ring? One such scene gave or hero a longer succession of such opponents that one might expect.

Interesting, too, that, as in at least one Hong Kong movie I can remember, the bad-ass English-speaking fighter is Australian. That makes sense, given geography, and it's always a sonic novelty to hear distinct Australian accents amid languages I don't understand.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

A lot of Aussies used to do voiceover work in kung fu films, which led to the amusing sound of Mandarin warlords sounding like Crocodile Dundee. Lately, some kung fu films have taken a decidedly anti-Western stance. I did a piece on it recently.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll look for that piece. The movies I had in mind were subtitled rather than dubbed, which I like because I at least get to hear the sound of the local language, to which the Australian makes a nice contrast.

Some of the Chinese-Hong Kong co-productions I've seen have been not so much anti-Western as pro-Chinese.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jet Li's Fearless (2006) plays up Chinese nationalism in a big way, complete with condescending Europeans and evil Japanese. It's interesting, though, that the hero, Huo Yuanjia, and the Japanese fighter come to enjoy mutual respect. A bit of pro-Asian solidarity there, perhaps?

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Check out this magazine article to get an idea of the scale of anti-Japanese sentiment in mainstream Chinese entertainment. It's a bit scary, actually.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Once Upon a Time, a a 2008 wartime Korean heist comedy that I wrote about here, has Japanese characters as villains and some pretty harsh scenes of both Japanese military mistreating of Korean civilians and showing contempt for their own Korean collaborators.

In re Chinese movies' anti-Japanese sentiment, who would have thought back when Ross Perot was choosing Pat Choate as a running mate, that people in America would be feeling sorry for Japan just a few years later?

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

It has to be said that the Koreans and Chinese have reason to hate the Japanese. Not only were Japanese war crimes epic in scale and viciousness, but they then managed to escape any kind of war crimes trials. Only a handful of Japanese stood trial for war crimes, and that contrasts badly with the thousands of Nazis who faced justice after VE Day. Max Hasting's history of the Pacific war, Nemesis, does a great job of showing just how ruthless the Japanese were.

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Years ago I visited Guilin in a group of three: me and two young Japanese bankers. Later I found out about the Battle of Guilin. There seemed no ill will visibly directed toward my Japanese friends that I could recall, though I don't know how much contact they had with the locals. (They were both women, so less prone than I was to wandering the streets at night soaking up the local scenery.)

April 19, 2013  
Blogger Diana R. Chambers said...

I will use this for some book research and just put it in my Netflix queue! You get us out of our ruts with your off-the-beaten-track books and flix. Thanks, Peter, and see you at B'con!

April 25, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You can stream "Ong Bak" on Netflix as well, if you don't feel like waiting for it. The selection available for streaming is smaller than I'd like, which has got me to watch some good movies I might not have seen otherwise. This was one of them.

Yes, I'll see you at Bouchercon especially since I now know, thanks to you, which hotel the hotel bar is in.

April 25, 2013  
Blogger Diana R. Chambers said...

No streaming here. We're on sat/DSL, can't bear to deal with Comcast. What are my options?!

April 25, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your options are to wait for the movie in the mail. Isn't Comcast/Amazon/Goggle/APple fun?

April 25, 2013  
Blogger Diana R. Chambers said...

Yeah, so tempting....One day I will bite.

April 25, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I'm encouraged that you've avoided Comcast, perhaps because I just read an ancient comment here on Detectives Beyond Borders that urged against patronizing monolithic corporations whenever possible. The reason I stream movies is that I'm not hooked up to cable television, so I just watch movies on my computer when I get the urge. I must admit, though, that my computer is an Apple, so so much for striking a blow against monolithic corporations.

April 26, 2013  
Blogger Diana R. Chambers said...

PS I've been on Macs for 25 years. I must admit sharing your misgivings lately.

April 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought my iMac because it had two features that I was looking for in a computer. Apple made a good product, in other words, nothing more and nothing less. Steve Jobs was not God or even a prophet, Apple worship is at best a puzzling phenomenon, and Apple is no different from any other multinational corporaiton.

April 27, 2013  
Blogger Diana R. Chambers said...

Now it is no different, but their emphasis on the aesthetic of the experience made me a loyal customer. That and their user-friendly, high quality design. I will remain so as long as this continues.

Steve Jobs was a brilliant man who both channeled and led his era.

April 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Eh, he made a computer that does what I need it to do. That's enough for me.

April 27, 2013  

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