I will admit that part of my reason for doing the kung fu marathon was to help piece together a blind spot in Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films, because both of the stars are rather well known and necessary to a better understanding of global cinema. Picking films like Enter the Dragon, or the upcoming Drunk Master were obvious choices and were obvious. Another reason for doing this marathon was to undertake another film that I was ashamed to have yet to view, in the 2003 Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak. Aside from the yet unviewed My Neighbor Totoro, this film, directed by Prachya Pinkaew stood in as one of my big shame spots when people ask me about big films that I have yet to see. I know it is a relatively recent film compared to others and certainly does not have the status of a ton of other classics, but it is a work whose name often gets mentioned in cinephile circles as one of the masterpieces of the 21st century. This claim is quite appropriate, because what Pinkaew offers in this is nothing short of a visceral, wild and highly post-modern martial arts film. Indeed, when people claim that a director like Quentin Tarantino is the only one working in a referential methodology, needs to refer to this film, because it has all the tips of the hat to notable auteurs both distinguished and cult (Tati, Spielberg, and Bay come to mind), while also maintaining a distinguishable fresh and unique narrative. Ong-Bak looks and feels like a martial arts flick that is directed by somebody who clearly spent time in film school. With a composition that, at times, taps into the serenity of a Satyajit Ray drama only to juxtapose it with a feverish editing style indicative of Fincher, Pinkaew makes a clear statement of a style and look of the martial arts film as it exists in the 2000's. While I had sought Ong-Bak out for a considerable amount of time, it was actually not my first experience with the director, instead being fortunate enough to view Chocolate, which is certainly great, but does not manage the master stroke of this work. The wild thing about everything I have said so far is that it only concerns how excellent the director is, I could speak at length about the wonder of lead actor Tony Jaa, who is, undoubtedly, the closest figure moviegoers can ever hope for to that of the late Bruce Lee.
Ong-Bak begins in the rural Thai village Ban Nong Pradu, where the villagers are undertaking an annual festival, one that includes a feat of athleticism where young men climb a tree to obtain a scarf, proving themselves the most skilled athlete. This surprisingly dangerous and brutal endeavor allows for the young Muay Thai expert Ting (Tony Jaa) to emerge as a winner, much to the elation of the village priests, although they warn him that his skills are meant to be a point of meditation and not a thing to be used in violence. Meanwhile, a Bangkok crime henchmen named Don (Wannakit Siroput) attempts to purchase a jade buddha figurine from a local, hoping to return the piece, which is highly valued on the art market to his boss. Yet, prizing the figurine for religious purposes, the villager refuses to sell the item, leading to Don and his men stealing the head of Ong-Bak, the villages prized buddha statue. The removal of this head, causes the town to fall into panic assuming that the gods will thus be mad at them and punish them for allowing such atrocities to occur. Realizing the seriousness of such issues, Ting volunteers to travel to Bangkok and return Ong-Bak, much to the elated hopes of the village. Sent with money and gifts intended to help on his journey, Ting enters the wild and seedy world of crime that is Bangkok, immediately encountering a former member of his village who now calls himself George (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and his young friend Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol) who are themselves hustlers within the underground fighting rings of Bangkok. Initially dismissive of Ting, George realizes that Ting possesses considerable skills as a Muay Thai boxer and exploits it to pay off debts, with the promise of helping him find the Ong-Bak statue head he seeks. What unfolds after this encounter is a movement through both the local and international levels of crime occurring in Thailand, whether it be directly related to the highly violent brawls that feed into gambling rings, or the heavy drug trafficking occurring in Bangkok. Eventually, George turns a new leaf when he is inspired by the religious zeal of Ting and helps him to take on the highest boss in the Bangkok crime circles. All the while Ting is required to prove his skill as a fighter, in engagements that become more brutal and damaging to his body. In the end the two confront and defeat the boss, but this does not occur without a bit of divine intervention and loss, however, Ting is successful in his endeavor and returns home, to a celebration and what appears to be his anointing as a monk.
Ong-Bak, for being a film that is decidedly situated within the spaces of Thailand, is an expressly transnational work. What makes it different from other works focused upon in this marathon so far, is that it is transnational both on a diagetic and non-diagetic level. I mean to say that the landscape of Thailand, and Bangkok specifically, is one that is highly affected by a global culture, specifically a Westernized view of such. Take for example George, who has appropriated a very Anglo name to lend credibility to his non-rural lifestyle, almost as though to suggest that he is Westerner by merely appropriating a name, however, he too changes hair color and clothing to better assert such a claim. Still wearing a Buddhist prayer bracelet does, however, problematize the figure of George. This transnationalism, however, is not most obvious in George, but is instead so in the fighting ring where Ting faces of against various fighters, some of who are Thai, but ones that are British, Japanese and apparently some form of Persian drunken pirate. The spectators in this space are even more varied, including many Western bodies, as well as what appear to be African and Latin American bodies as well. Thailand in the space of Ong-Bak has become a point of global spectacle, however, it is not for ideal reasons. In Bangkok, according to Pinkaew's film, all is brutal, and all is tied to vice. Yet, afforded the opportunity to speak to the global gaze that exacts itself upon Thailand, Pinkaew also uses the film to create a dialogue with other global filmmakers, whether it be the clear tips of the hat to the aforementioned filmmakers like Tati and Ray, or more subtle inclusions of posters for classic Hollywood faces like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. It is clear through these references and moments of miss-en-scene that Pinkaew wants to make viewers aware that the cultural consumption goes both ways, and that for as much as Bangkok might seem like a place of violence and vice, it is lifted almost entirely from Western culture. A decided big-dreamer, Pinkaew makes a bold assertion, when including a piece of graffiti in the background of one chase scene that reads "Hi Spielberg, Let's Do It Together." In this minor moment, the filmmaker demands that global cinema could, and should, be a global engagement. One could only imagine the wonder possessed in such a dynamic collaboration.
Key Scene: The fight between Ting and a bad guy who I am dubbing Alex Rodriguez, considering his substance abuse problem, is an example of all the thrill and magic that makes the editing of Ong-Bak great, but his is only one moment of many where things work brilliantly.
Ong-Bak was made for high-defintion and a bluray is a must.