[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
When I began writing this monthly column for Flixist, my initial plan was simply to highlight the movies that had a profound impact on me and see if they held up in a modern sense. The majority have, for the record, but I didn’t think it would also reignite my passion for martial arts in a tangible way. Not only have I gotten back into collecting movies, but I’ve also returned to practicing martial arts in an effort to find peace within myself.
Which art am I taking up? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by Muay Thai ever since I saw Ong-Bak in theaters nearly 20 years ago. Exploding onto the scene from basically nowhere, actor Tony Jaa could become a legend overnight before disappearing into obscurity for a decade and making a rebound with Hong Kong action films that would lead him to Hollywood. Despite nearing 50, Jaa is more active now than he has ever been and, oddly enough, Fast & Furious can be credited to that.
That’s neither here nor there, though. With my renewed interest in becoming a martial arts practitioner, my mind has been drawn to Jaa’s debut as of late. Cut from a similar cloth to that of Jackie Chan’s 80s extravaganzas, Ong-Bak made a tremendous splash in the international market when it was released domestically in 2005. Introducing a method of combat that many Westerners had never seen, many were comparing Jaa to the likes of Bruce Lee and believing his star would continue to grow exponentially.
Sadly, that didn’t come to pass, but Ong-Bak couldn’t have been released at a better time for me. If you’ve followed my previous columns, you’ll know that I started to get into Kung Fu films in high school thanks to a couple of friends. That was toward the end of 2004. I hadn’t really amassed a collection of DVDs at this point, but when I saw this incredible looking movie getting promoted across TV, I knew I had to be there.
I made the trek to a local theater with my mother and a friend and we weren’t prepared for what was about to unfold. Starting things off with an absolutely brutal sequence where a bunch of fighters are playing some kind of capture the flag game, Ong-Bak wastes no time in letting you know that its action will be visceral and realistic. As was the big selling point at the time, none of the stunts here involve CGI or wirework. This is just a group of stunt actors going hog wild on each other and it’s thrilling.
The basic plot of Ong-Bak doesn’t really matter knowing that, but there is a thread running through the proceedings to give context to each moment. Hailing from the village of Ban Nong Pradu, Ting (Jaa) is something of a prodigy when it comes to his village’s combat style of Muay Thai. With many of the locals looking up to Ting, they insist he travels to Bangkok to recover the recently stolen head of Ong-Bak, the ancient Buddha statue that the village worships.
What follows is generic in terms of twists, turns, and plotting, but it gives way to magnificent fight sequences. With the film being less than two hours long, the pacing also never lets up. Just before his journey, Ting practices his moves with his teacher and this sequence could almost act as an instructional video. Jaa is given the absolute best showcase possible for his acrobatic prowess and this innocuous moment is exciting even without an opponent.
After arriving in Bangkok, it’s not long before Ting is scrapping with people. Having met up with his cousin, Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), Ting inadvertently gets entered into an underground fighting ring and floors a dude with a single kick. It’s probably the standout moment in the film just because it’s so ridiculous. If you want to sell an audience on the power of your leading man, having him stomp on a burly man’s head with virtually no effort is the way to go.
This underground ring isn’t completely irrelevant, though, as the organizer is actually the one that ordered the mysterious criminal to steal Ong-Bak’s head from Ting’s village. Having learned that, Ting is now dead set on unraveling this crime ring and restoring the Buddha’s head to his village. Cue a chase sequence straight out of Project A where Jaa does a cartwheel flip through two panes of glass.
Another standout moment from the film comes in a Tuk-Tuk chase through the streets of Bangkok. I don’t believe this was filmed in a guerilla style similar to The Raid 2, but director Prachya Pinkaew really didn’t hold back when going for spectacle. Cars slam into fruit stands, people are kicked off moving vehicles, and stunt actors even drive on demolished bits of highway just to create the best possible action sequence their budget could buy.
The only fault you can lobby at Ong-Bak is that the finale isn’t nearly as creative as everything beforehand. I’m absolutely floored that Jaa was able to backflip off of a wall as if gravity doesn’t matter to him, but the last battle is filmed from a side perspective that doesn’t truly capture the intensity of everything. Pinkaew would revisit this angle in his 2008 Chocolate to much better effect.
There’s also the plotline of Humlae sacrificing himself as redemption for his poor treatment of Ting. I haven’t even mentioned Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol), Humlae’s friend that rarely factors into any developments. She mostly exists so that Humlae can make a dramatic speech at the end about how he always cared and wasn’t able to properly show it.
Flimsy plot aside, Ong-Bak is still an astonishing film all these years later. I’m surprised Jaa’s star wouldn’t rise for another decade or so, but at least he never gave up in the intervening years. The immediate follow-up to Ong-Bak, Tom Yum Goong, would go through a bunch of edits before hitting American theaters and Jaa sort of lost his mind while creating Ong-Bak 2, but he is finally starting to make a splash in Hollywood…even if it’s in bit roles.
It’s absolutely tragic that the majesty of Ong-Bak wasn’t followed up with an equally impressive sequel (both Ong-Bak 2 and 3 are pretty awful), but you can’t rewrite history. Jaa proved to international audiences that he was a star worth paying attention to, but hadn’t yet proved to himself that he was capable. At least he’s finally there after all this time and we can look back at this first film with delight at knowing it’s not the only good film Jaa has been involved with.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.