Kung Fu Fridays: Ong-Bak
Since the release of the original Street Fighter (Fighting Street for those seven Turbo CD owners) I have loved Muay Thai. Adon, a sub-boss in the game, was a Muay Thai student who looked cool but was lacking just a bit. Sagat however, the boss in the original Street Fighter but more commonly known as a sub-boss and then playable character in the following Street Fighter II onward, was just so cool and unlike anything I had really seen before. When that game hit arcades I was fully immersed in the Saturday afternoon kung fu movies so I recognized most of what I saw on screen. But not Sagat. Muay Thai was not a common fighting style in 70’s kung fu cinema so when Sagat came on screen, it was transfixed. Fast forward two years later and Kickboxer hit theaters and introduced the world to Tong-Po. Tong-Po solidified my love of Muay Thai and caused me to seek out kickboxing fights on ESPN and later, online. It is one of the most devastating fighting styles consisting of hardcore elbow and knee strikes. It is steeped in history and tradition and when practiced at the highest level, is quite beautiful to behold. Its popularity has come and gone throughout pop culture but it has always been present in some form or another. One of the finest examples of Muay Thai, and this weeks feature, is Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.
Ong-Bak is a 2003 Taiwanese martial arts film starring Tony Jaa and directed by Prachya Pinkaew. It is one of the higher grossing films produced in Thailand and served as Jaa’s breakout film. And for good reason. Ong-Bak isn’t a great film as far as movies go but not many in this feature have been to be honest. But, as a martial arts film, it is one of the most stunning and real films ever made. It is a film that starts off very slowly, spending far too much time in its opening act. But once it ramps up, it ramps up hard. The plot of the film is serviceable at best. Ting, played by Jaa, is sent from his village to recover the head of Ong-Bak, a Buddhist statue in his village. Thieves from Bangkok stole the head and so Ting must go retrieve it. What follows are excuses frankly for Jaa to fight on screen. There are chases, drug dealers, bar fights, a shifty cousin, the works basically. Jaa spends his time showing how brutal Muay Thai fighting can be. There are moments of levity to be sure but not goofy in the Jackie Chan sense. Jaa ends up a cross between Chan, Jet Li, and Bruce Lee. He is incredibly fast and perhaps most impressive, is actually doing all of the stunt work in the film. Around this time movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero were popularizing “wire-fu” while Ong-Bak was decidedly grounded. The fight choreography in this film is gritty and real world. Jaa shines when given the opportunity to fight. He is not the biggest guy in the world but there is never a moment where he looks out of place. He brought martial arts back to a more realistic footing with this film as well as its sequels and films like The Protector.
If you have never seen this flick and don’t know what Muay Thai is, I promise you will be a fan. Jaa is extremely charismatic and watchable. He draws you in with just how damn smooth everything looks. Check out the trailer below and then head here for the whole film. Make sure to follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know what you thought of Ong-Bak and check back here next week for another classic kung fu flick. Until then…