Since he was a young boy, Ting (Tony Jaa) has been trained in the art of Muay Thai (Thai boxing) but he has sworn never to use these techniques to bring harm to others. Ting is finally forced into action when Don (Wannakit Siriput) steals the head of the Buddha (Ong Bak) that has brought good luck to his village of Nong Pra-du, in the hope of appeasing the gangster boss Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai). Ting's quest takes him to Bangkok, where he meets and forms an uneasy bond with George (Petchthai Wonkamiao) a cousin from his village, who has adopted the city way of life. Ting is pushed into illegal fights run by gambling bosses, and his quest to bring the head back for Ong Bak seems destined to fail.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A simple story with no subtext and no real moral message about simplified characters in a rural/urban cultural conflict serves to highlight the film's single most effective element: Tony Jaa, the much hyped new Thai martial arts cinematic whirling dervish. Sadly the same simplified elements make the film little more than a series of stunt sequences, which we begin to deconstruct by the time the climactic final confrontation takes place in a cave on the Thai/Burmese border.
Indeed, the film reminds me of those B movies of yore in which the hero slips under the descending roller door just in time, and the baddies melt away once they're knocked down. And they are certainly knocked down in what is often bloody and quite violent battles. Unlike in those B movies, though, Prachya Pinkaew uses multi camera set ups for many of the fight sequences, so we can see them from three different angles; no remote necessary.
The Jackie Chan-ish stunts include Ting leaping over cars, sliding under cars, flying through barbed wire loops and across food stalls with hot cooking oil, or jumping sideways between two plates of glass carried by tradesmen, all while being chased. That's on foot. Then there is the extended tuk-tuk chase (cheaper than cars) which demolishes half of the Bangkok fleet.
Tony Jaa is indeed splendidly martial in his fighting arts, but his character has the fewest lines in the film, probably because he was trained as a Muay Thai fighter, not a method actor. The best performance in the film is by the boyishly pretty Pumwaree Yodkamol as Muay Lek, who we instantly expect to become the love interest for Ting, our dashing young hero - only to discover that there is no love interest for this Ting. She is a fresh and natural talent with plenty of charisma and on screen zing, and it's a pity she is not used more in the story.
Probably of interest to those who really enjoy or study martial arts, Ong Bak may be the precursor of better roles for Tony Jaa. Let's hope. And certainly the DVD is studded with the martial arts material that underpins the film, like fight demonstrations. Perhaps of greatest interest is Born For The Fight, a 50 minute Australian doco by Pru Colville and Jon Matthews, which explores the history and social background of Muay Thai fighting. The filmmakers examine how this form of martial arts is perhaps the most brutal and least pedantic. They also explain why it is so widespread as a sport, offering pooor village kids the only chance of getting out of the village rut and making a living. The social and historic background is fascinating, and the film is shot around rural Thailand, offering us a glimpse into a rarely seen aspect of Thai culture and gritty life.
September 1, 2005
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ONG-BAK: DVD (MA)
CAST: Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Chetwut Wacharakun, Suchao Pongwilai
PRODUCER: Prachya Pinkaew, Sukanya Vongsthapat
DIRECTOR: Prachya Pinkaew
SCRIPT: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Nattawut Kittikhun
EDITOR: Thanat Sunsin, Thanapat Taweesuk
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Arkadech Kaewkotara
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 10, 2005
SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: Ong Bak feature; Disc 2: Born for the Fight doco; behind the scenes; Tony Jaa interview; Prachya Pinkaew interview; French music video; audition videos; Tony Jaa fight demonstration; deleted scenes; alternate ending; hidden messages; screen saver
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: AV Channel
DVD RELEASE: August 24, 2005