Cinophile: Ong Bak

5 min read
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[column size=one_half position=first ] “Bottom brick.” Ah, wait, wrong film. But I’ve decided to make that a thing. ‘Bottom Brick’ was that moment when Bloodsport showed the audience it will be an awesome martial arts movie, because Van Damme hits that bottom brick into dust. It’s quick, violent and makes the point clear: you do not want to f*** with this fighter.

Other ‘bottom brick’ moments include Donnie Yen slapping a bandit with a feather duster in Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s lightning dismissal of O’Hara in Enter The Dragon and Jackie Chan racing a car downhill through a shanty town in Police Story. But hands down my favourite is Tony Jaa in Ong Bak. After teasing the audience for nearly a third of the movie, the hero Ting is finally put in a position to show what he is made of. He settles that debate with a single kick, and then proceeds into one of the greatest fight sequences ever caught on film.

When it comes to martial arts movies, fans can be really picky and argue over everything.  Inevitably the debate will be around which movie heroes can best the rest of them. Since Bruce Lee popularized the trope of a Kung Fu master, we’ve had several serious contenders: Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen are all very dangerous on screen. But they also represent more or less a single school of movie martial arts: that of Chinese Kung Fu or Wu Shu.

Jaa’s epic was different. It set out to portray one of the most dangerous real fighting styles out there, the martial arts/boxing hybrid of Muay Thai. Until this point martial arts has been depicted on screen in more or less two ways: the lightning counter-move choreography of Kung Fu or the slow power slams of Western films. Ong Bak changed that, introducing both great speed and brutal power to the equation.

You do not want to face Ting, Jaa’s character. He is fast and cunning, as demonstrated by his fight with a Chinese boxer. He can also take the punches and, above all, his knees and elbows are lethal weapons. Modern martial art films are all about being very visceral – as if you can feel the blows and smell the blood. Ong Bak is responsible for making this mainstream. The fight scenes are second to none when it comes to style, execution and bringing the pain. Hands up if you didn’t cringe every time Ting rammed his elbow into someone’s head. Yeah? Well, you’re lying.

But Ong Bak also wins on other levels. It has excellent action sequences outside of fights, something from the Jackie Chan school. And the story is not needlessly convoluted. This problem would hurt the sequel, Ong Bak 2, but not this film. Jaa’s next movie, The Protector, suffered from the opposite problem: great action, stupid story. But Ong Bak was the prefect storm of martial arts madness. It baited the audience, sold them with that single kick and then proceeded to make things better and badder. By the third act you expect titanic proportions of ass kicking and Ong Bak delivers.

The movie’s impact is clear today: knees and elbows have become a standard in action scenes. Films like Ip Man have upped the violence in Kung Fu films, while The Raid and Chocolate are clear disciples of Ong Bak‘s legacy. This makes Ong Bak the most influential marital arts film of the 21st century so far. Everything else has just been trying to beat it at its game, including Jaa’s own films. Some have been really excellent, again showing how high Ong Bak has raised the bar. But only one stands as the measuring stick. And that was Ting ‘bottom bricking’ some loud biker’s face.

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Tony Jaa started working on film sets at age 15 and over the next decade became a stuntman. He attracted the attention of director Prachya Pinkaew by creating a demo reel of Muay Thai moves with his trainer Master Panna. Jaa is trained in an older form of Muay Thai, said to be originally used by Thai warriors a thousand years ago. He certainly had the best instruction: one of his trainers was Ajarn Yodtong Senanan, the greatest Muay Thai trainer in Thailand and who produced the most champions in the fighting style. He can be seen in the bar fight seen as a cigarette seller who named the moves Ting demonstrates. Sadly he master died in 2013.
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There are several notes to other directors in Ong Bak. During the taxi chase scene, the sentence “Hi Luc Besson we are waiting for you” is hidden in the background. During the alley chase scene, “Hi Speilberg let do it together” can be seen written on a wall. Besson would later buy the worldwide rights to the movie and release both a modified version and the original in the West. Steven Seagal was at a point interested in distributing the film, but wanted extra footage shot that would cast him as Ting’s trainer. Fortunately the idea was rejected.
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Ong Bak famously uses no wire tricks of computer graphics. Instead the stunts were rigorously trained by a team of stunts people, marital artists and acrobats. Tony Jaa also performed all of his own stunts. Many of the characters in the movie had strange hair styles, used to hide the padding on their head. But injuries on set were very rare, a mark of the crew's professionalism and talent. 
Ong Bak famously uses no wire tricks of computer graphics. Instead the stunts were rigorously trained by a team of stunts people, marital artists and acrobats. Tony Jaa also performed all of his own stunts. Many of the characters in the movie had strange hair styles, used to hide the padding on their head. But injuries on set were very rare, a mark of the crew’s professionalism and talent.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

 

 

Last Updated: September 1, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it’s something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway – even video nasties need love…

  • xdvd

    Hutanuput! (Ting puts knees in bad guy’s chest). Great movie.

    • The final fight scenes showed how you finish a great martial arts movie. That dual-knee pile driver must have been a tough stunt to pull off.

  • Kervyn Cloete

    I remember watching this for the very first time and spending most of it going “Jirre, that must have hurt!!!”

    • Yeah, this must have been a record for amounts of times the audience flinched.

  • Love this movie, but hate the female lead’s screechy whiny voice. Gaaah, it’s;like nails on a chalkboard

    • I’m with you. Alas, Asian audiences seem to love those kinds of characters.

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