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Background: The Long Fight for 'Ong Bak'

Round one: Inspiration.

The seeds of ‘Ong Bak’ were first planted in the mind of director Prachya Pinkaew when, as a teenager, he sat in his native village, watching the films of Thai action movie hero Phanna Rithikrai. Phanna was the Bruce Lee of Thailand. Prachya was most impressed with ‘Born to Fight’, which Phanna starred in, directed and produced. What made Phanna special was that, in his films, all the fight scenes were performed ‘for real’, without the air of special effects and camera tricks. This contrasted sharply with the more stylized Hong Kong martial arts movies that were popular in Thailand at the time. The young Prachya vowed that, when he became a filmmaker, he would make a movie that would make the same kind of impact that ‘Born To Fight’ had made on him.

Prachya subsequently moved to Bangkok and became a director. When he finally met Phanna in person, they found they shared a common dream of using film to bring greater glory to Thai martial arts. “Since I was a youngster, I never did anything by halves,” says Phanna. “I invested my own money in my early films. I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking when I made ‘Born To Fight’. I just wanted to find a way to express my life experiences on film.”

As Phanna got older, he realized that he needed to find new blood to perform the action scenes in his films, but none of his discoveries worked out. “In the end, I was left training only one young guy, with no real hope of his ever becoming a movie star.”

Prachya asked to meet Phanna’s sole remaining protégé, a young man named Tony Jaa.

Tony had been training under Phanna, in both kung fu and movie stunts, since the age of 10. In him, Phanna had found his perfect cinematic alter ego. After seeing Tony Jaa in action, Prachya set about crafting a vehicle that would do justice to both his idol and his young protégé.

“For four years, I worked very closely with Phanna and Tony,” reveals Prachya. “It became more than a film to us. We became like family. I realized that I couldn’t approach (‘Ong Bak’) as just another piece of filmmaking. For Phanna and Tony, this was the fulfillment of a life-long dream, and I wanted to share their energy and determination with the audience.

Round two: Perspiration

Prior to production, Phanna and Tony put together their own stunt team, and painstakingly and painfully choreographed the film’s action sequences. “I focused on the beauty of the classical Muay Thai movements,” reveals Phanna. “I tried to stay true to the integrity of the art, because I knew this would be the first real Thai Boxing film. I wanted very punch and kick to be crystal clear to the audience.” All the scenes were videotaped then shown to director Prachya for his input. “Sometimes we would show the scene to Prachya, and we thought it was okay, but it wouldn’t be up to his standard!” remembers Phanna. “Then we’d have to shoot it all over again!” Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tony refuses to use wires, CGI or camera tricks to enhance his action. Everything you see on-screen is real. Tony and his stunt team have the bruises, burns and scars to prove it.

“Every scene serves as a showcase for different movements from classical Muay Thai,” says Prachya. “Originally, when I conceived the film, I didn’t think about using Thai Boxing. Then, when I started working with Phanna and Tony, they shot some videotape footage of the kind of fights they wanted to do. Once I saw these unique Muay Thai movements, I was so impressed. I was impressed with the moves, and the fact that Tony could execute them so naturally, without wires or other tricks. That became the ‘style’ for the film’s fight scenes.”

Prachya broke down the different Muay Thai movements in terms of their cinematic application. “Each action has a different purpose,” he reveals. “Some are for counter attacks. Some of them are first strike moves. Some actions, like the guard, are taken to fend off an opponent.” Even the smallest details added to the effect Prachya and his team was aiming for. “If you look at the way Tony holds his fists, it’s different from Chinese kung fu,” says the director, “and it’s different from western boxing. Every time he punches, he straightens the whole arm. You have to watch the fights closely to catch the details in the action. The guard position, the way he stamps the ground, these are all trademarks of classical Muay Thai.”

The production took great care in finding an appropriate variety of opponents for Ting to fight. One of the most memorable is a hirsute Wildman from the west, ‘Big Bear’. “Big Bear really looks down on Thai Boxing,” says Prachya of the character. “He wants to challenge all the Thai fighters, and we see sexually abusing a Thai waitress. Our hero has to defend the pride of the Thai people. The move he uses in that scene is called ‘Bata Loop Pak’, which means ‘Foot Touches Face’. It’s actually a great insult in Thai culture to touch someone with your foot, so this is the perfect gesture for such a rude person!”

An early standout sequence in the film is the one where some gangsters chase Tony and George down a market street. “We tried to keep the setting as natural as possible,” says Prachya. “We wanted to reflect the real livelihoods and lifestyles of the people on these streets. This added a lot to the mood of the scene. The bad guys are very similar to those seen in other Thai movies, but the way we use them in this sequence is different. The feeling is lighter. It’s not a matter of life and death. I think the scene works well, and people find it very funny.”

A major stunt that will stay in the audience’s mind is one set in a deserted gas station. Ting sets himself on fire before delivering a burning drop kick to his opponent. “I actually got burned during that scene,” remembers Tony. “I really had to concentrate, because, once my pants were on fire, the flames spread upwards very fast, and burnt my eyebrows, my eyelashes and my nose. Then we had to do a couple more takes to get it right!” While Tony and his team worked on his stunts, Prachya focused on the design the scene as a whole. “It’s important to link the action scenes correctly,” reveals the director. “First we have Tony setting his pants on fire and delivering the kick, then, after he extinguishes the flames, he does this spinning reverse kick on another guy. In between, we have the second guy trying to strangle him, which made for a good transition moment.”

The Seng Stunt Team coordinated the standout ‘tuk-tuk’ chase sequence, featuring the unique three-wheeled Bangkok taxis. This group specializes in vehicular stunts, and previously worked on several Hollywood movies, including the two James Bond films shot on location in Thailand. “The ‘tuk tuk’ is a very traditional means of transport in Thailand, so we didn’t want to spoil its image,” says the director. “In other films, you usually see the tuk-tuk raise its front wheel, but, in our film, it’s the rear wheels that rise. This presented quite a challenge. It proved impossible to use any kind of remote control device to maintain acceleration. In the end, each tuk-tuk in every scene, even the crashing scenes, is actually driven by one of our stuntmen.”

Round three: Improvisation

During the casting process, director Prachya put together an eclectic group of players, mixing veterans with newcomers. Popular TV comic Petchthai Wongkamlao gets to shine in the challenging role of George, the street hustler who finally regains his honour. “My character is someone who has forgotten his own roots,” reveals the actor. “He just takes advantage of everyone around him.” Prachya remembers being surprised by the different facets of Petchthai’s character. “We all know him as Thailand’s number one comedian,” says Prachya, “but, when we met, I found out who he really is, and I tried to put something of his real self in the script.” Petchthai, who has since made his own directorial debut with ‘Bodyguard’, actually provided some input for a key street chase sequence in ‘Ong Bak’. “Originally, George was meant to just run off in another direction,” remembers Prachya, “but Petchthai suggested that he should be following Tony. From this idea, we came up with more physical comedy to make his character funnier.”

Final round: Acclamation

The huge success of ‘Ong Bak’ put Thai martial arts movies back on the world cinema map, and established a major new action hero in the person of Tony Jaa.

 

 
 

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Ong Bak