Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 6:40 pm 
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The pure pleasure of the real thing

20 April 2005

That "Thai Warrior" is Worowit/Panom Yeerum, AKA Tony Jaa, and he's the reason for watching this movie. He's an amazingly gifted young Muai Thai kick boxer and stunt man who did all his leaps and jumps and dives. My favorite moment of all is the one where he's chasing through the streets and dives under a car, slides out the other side, and pops up again all in one smooth motion. Do you think that's easy? It's barely even conceivable. And he does all this without trick photography and the wires we've gotten all too familiar with in Chinese martial arts movies. Look for the real thing here, no arty made-for-westerners romances à la Crouching Tiger or Flying Daggers. This is like finding a dirty little restaurant in San Francisco's Tenderloin that has really authentic Vietnamese or Pakistani food. No frills, but the joy of the truly unmediated experience. The story, something about a stone head from Ting's (Jaa's) village Buddhist temple whose theft by a gangster's low level employee disgraces the village and must be restored, is a mere formality, just enough to get things going and give Ting a back story.

Tony Jaa's face is pretty, almost feminine, and his body is stocky and incredibly strong. Despite a poster for the movie that shows his broad tapered back, you may not notice how well muscled he is at first. None of this movie is about superficial show so much as it's about accomplishment. Jaa's expressions are intent and sensitive, but unlike the Beautiful Boxer star Asanee Suwan (whose character, Nong Toom, is supposed to be a cross-dresser fighting to earn money for a sex change), Jaa doesn't mug in an attempt to act and isn't called upon to do so.

This was a relaxing way to end a movie marathon of three films in one day -- the other two were the Kazakhstan charmer, Schizo, and the doc of US soldiers in Iraq, Gunner Palace -- because it is completely mindless. You have to adopt a mindless attitude (which I could not manage for Sin City or Oldboy, hence my difficulty with those two productions) because Ong-bak contains a lot of bone-crushing violence. Sometimes you can even hear the bones being crushed. The movie has been called "insanely brutal" and that's about right, though all the brutality is pretty much in hand-to-hand fighting and stays close to the kick boxing techniques. You have to focus exclusively on Tony Jaa's physical prowess and remember that this is a movie -- that people are not really being killed or their heads mashed in -- but if you do so you will be amply rewarded. There are car chases, battles, competitions, sexy girls, and evil gangsters, the kingpin of them all being a depraved cripple with a scary voicebox. It's not that there's no plot, just that you'd waste your time taking it seriously.

The other most purely enjoyable sequence in Ong-bak comes even earlier than the street chase, when Ting is demonstrating his moves for his Buddhist teacher through adopting a sequence of ritualized positions. This is pure physical grace, like a dance broken into a series of sudden tableaux, and you realize what a heap of actual art there is in the martial arts. You can't fake this kind of thing, and what impresses in this scene is not the moves and positions in themselves, but the clear sense you get that Tony Jaa knows all this deep in his bones. More than just showing off a series of carefully memorized moves this sequence is like someone with a beautiful voice and perfect diction reciting a long, awesome prayer. It's beyond words, and beyond interpretation: it just is.

It's said that The Making of Ong-bak is even better. Could be. Said that Tony Jaa is going to be better than Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Could be. Anyway, even if this was only a unique moment in time, it'd be a movie that's fun to watch if you enjoy seeing the body in graceful, powerful, acrobatic motion. In the world of martial arts stunts, it just doesn't get any better than this. 9/10

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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