Monday, 11 October 2010

Ong-Bak 3 (and a potted history of a decade of Thai action movies.)

I saw the original Thai action movie Ong-Bak for the first time a couple of years ago: it single handedly rekindled my dormant-since-childhood love of martial arts movies, and I've followed everything Tony Jaa and the Thai film company Sahamongkolfilm have done since with a fervour that borders of the fetishistic. But that's just the kind of reaction Ong-Bak inspires in people. It had terrible acting, basically no plot (something to do with retrieving a stolen Buddha head), and was shamelessly a vehicle for then-rising star Tony Jaa's prowess in Thai boxing. And absolutely no-one cared, because the film was an exercise in balls-to-the-wall fisticuffs and stunt carnage only matched, possibly, by Jackie Chan in his prime. You didn't have time to focus on the film's flaws, because the fighting started around the twenty-minute mark and only escalated in extremity and audacious choreography from there. If you haven't seen it, go do so now. If seeing a man perform a 720-degree spinning kick into another man's face while his trousers are on fire doesn't fill you with even a little bit of glee, then go and wrap your mouth around an exhaust pipe, because you're clearly bored with living.

After Ong-Bak hit, Sahamongkolfilm realised they were on to a winner, and so the subsequent few years saw them trying very hard to replicate the magic formula. The first attempt was Tom-Yum Goong, and on paper it looked like they had all the bases covered. Same star, same director, same choreographer, same basic plot (gangsters steal Tony Jaa's X, Tony Jaa kicks gangsters until they give him X back), same annoying comic-relief sidekick who would probably be construed as horrendously racist if this wasn't actually an Asian movie. And yet... it didn't quite take. The action was still good, but that same sense of crazed momentum just wasn't there. Maybe it was bad writing, bad editing, or just a surfeit of Australian professional wrestlers chucking baby elephants around the room. We may never know for sure.

Sahamongkolfilm are a hardy bunch though, and they kept trying, debuting prospective new Muay-Thai stars Dan Chupong and Jeeja Yanin in their respective vehicles. Decent movies, but again, the magic that was there in Ong-Bak just wasn't here (in hindsight, maybe casting Yanin as a sufferer of grossly charicatured autism wasn't the brightest move). Eventually, it transpired that a sequel was the only way to go.

However, all was not well in Thailand, and not just because of the irritatingly frequent military coups. For the long awaited Ong-Bak 2 Tony Jaa was taking on the role not only of star, but director and writer, and by most accounts, the strain was a bit more than he could handle. A messy series of disappearances and public breakdowns later, Ong-Bak 2 was behind schedule and over budget. The studio eventually decided to release it in an essentially unfinished state and subsequently make a sequel.

Ong-Bak 2 finally made it to British shores on DVD earlier this year, and it was unequivocally fucking dire. It was flimsily pitched as a "prequel" to Ong-Bak, which no-one bought for an instant because Ong-Bak was a modern, urban action movie, whereas this was a historical period piece with an entirely different set of characters. The plot concerned Tien (Jaa's character) as the son of a nobleman murdered by a corrupt king. Tien escaped, got raised by bandits and taught all the forms of combat in Asia (apparently), and now a grown man, he's out for revenge. Should be a simple enough story, but the writing turned it into an impossibly convoluted series of flashbacks and training montages. Jaa, effective as he is as a screenfighter, clearly lacked the dramatic clout to carry off a comparatively nuanced role. Even the fight scenes - the one thing anyone was really watching for in the first place - were underwhelming, and entirely too infrequent. They were as brutal as ever, sure, but unimaginatively staged and riddled with minor continuity errors, which you noticed more and more with repeated viewing.

Nevertheless, the follow up Ong-Bak 3 has just hit British shelves, and being as slavishly dedicated to the possibility of another Thai martial-arts movie as consistently entertaining as Ong-Bak, I snapped it up immediately. This time around, we're following Tien after his defeat and capture at the end of Ong-Bak 2. He's rescued by a group of peaceful villagers, reunited with his old love interest, and reconsiders his motive of revenge.

The result... is alright. I would say that it's a better movie than its predecessor, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate; it'd be truer to say that now that they're both out, they make more sense viewed together as a single, three-hour epic than they do taken individually. This is clearly the complete story that was intended from the outset of the project, the one that we were cheated out of when Ong-Bak 2 ended on a wierdly abrupt note, leaving a trucated narrative arc in its wake. The two films now form a neat thematic dual harmony; where Ong-Bak 2 saw Tien being consumed by a lust for revenge, its sequel has him redeeming himself by pursuing selflessness and Buddhist spirituality. Now that the saga's finally over, it feels genuinely whole and resolved, and bows out on a note of tranquillity and enlightenment. And it's a surprisingly earnest one at that, when compared to the often sanctimonious moralising of Hollywood blockbusters; Jaa has since become a Buddhist monk.

That said, on a purely narrative level, the plot is still incoherent to the point of being incomprehensible. The weirdly disjointed chronology that was one of Ong-Bak 2's bigger issues is now gone, but issues of pacing that would get a Hollywood scriptwriter sentenced to stoning still persist. After the initial sequences of Tien's torture and his subsequent rescue, the film hits a brick wall as we witness his recovery and training amongst the villagers. These sequences, necessary though they are to the film's message of peace through spirituality, are interminable and gruellingly dull. Add to that a major antagonist getting confusingly and unceremoniously killed off at the halfway point and a fight scene that's subjected to a bizarre process I can only refer to as a "self-retcon" (you'll know it when you see it), and you're left with the distinct impression of a movie that's been stitched together from its component parts... and that a few of the parts were missing.

Thankfully, the fighting is up to snuff. While Ong-Bak 2 blew all of its resources on the one big brawl at the end, Ong-Bak 3 distributes itself more evenly. It slows down a bit - OK, a lot - in the middle, but a good fight is never too far away. The direction during these sequences is improved, gratefully devoid of the continuity errors that plagued number 2, and the choreography is more dynamic and inventive as well. The final confrontation between Tien and the Ghost Crow (played by Dan Chupong) is a bit of a let down, but that can be forgiven thanks to the preceeding epic melee where Tien takes on an entire friggin' army, Lone Wolf and Cub-style, in a sequence that recaptures, briefly, the excitement felt upon seeing Ong-Bak for the first time. In fact, the cinematography has improved in general, showing Jaa's progression as a director. Ong-Bak 2 looked and felt altogether too murky and claustrophobic, a situation improved upon here by a more vivid colour palette and broader, more encomassing shots, giving a suitably grandiose, opulent feel to the proceedings. There is some laughably bad CGI used at times, unfortunately, and the general quality of acting on display is pretty poor, but as most of the audience for this film is just here to watch Tony Jaa kick ass and take names, I doubt anyone minds very much.

With Jaa now enrolled in the monkhood, his film career is on an indefinite hiatus, and Ong-Bak 3 will be the last film he makes for a while at least. As swansongs go, it could have been better, but it also could have been much worse. All told, Ong-Bak 2 and 3 don't hold a candle to Ong-Bak, but that may not be an entirely fair comparison. It's clear now, if it ever wasn't, that these two films were made with that title only to reel in crowds on the strength of the brand name; they were driving at something completely different to their namesake, and might not have had such lofty expectations attached to them if they'd been called Tony Jaa Kicks Dudes: Now in Period Piece Flavour 1 and 2. Flawed, at times almost cripplingly so, but still worth checking out if you're into the Thai action scene and don't mind a bit of meditation woven into it.