Ong Bak: The Beginning
Review by Cassam Looch
FOLLOWING the 2003 smash Ong-Bak this loose prequel has been a longtime coming.
Jaa has made the brutal Tom Yum Goong (Warrior King) in the intervening years but it has been this film that almost proved too much for the Muay Thai expert.
A young boy from a small village sees everyone he knows slaughtered in front of him as he is thrown into a crocodile pit to try and fight for his life. He survives just as a rescue mission is launched and is taken into the care of a warrior tribe who train him to become the ultimate fighting machine.
Tiang (Jaa) soon becomes the leader of this group and he launches attacks with violent glee while still haunted by images of his past. Soon his desire for revenge becomes too great and he leaves to deliver justice on those who destroyed his childhood, but he returns a broken man to a home which itself is now under threat.
The plot is incredibly confusing whilst remaining entirely simplistic. It is a revenge/survival film set in the medieval Thai jungle, but the narrative is so cluttered it makes most of the non-action scenes incomprehensible.
We see two childhoods from Tiangs early years at various stages throughout the film, and I couldn’t really tell you which is which. I know films like this don’t rely on intricate storylines, but they should at least be clear and allow the action to flow from one broken neck to the next.
The reason for this confusion is actually quite obvious. Following his last two films, including the original Ong-Bak, Jaa decided to go it alone and direct this film as well as star in it.
Having secured funding based on a fantastic promo reel shown at Cannes in 2007 when production was well under way, the pressure got too much for the filmmaker. He ‘went native’ and stepped off set and into the wild jungle and disappeared for several weeks as panic and confusion set in.
In desperation, Jaa’s longtime collaborator and mentor Panna Rittikrai stepped in to complete filming as the star eventually returned.
The film reflects this troubled production as strands either die out with no explanation or crop up without any reasoning.
In a perverse way, though, it is strangely comforting to know that despite his success Jaa is still the wild man he portrays on the screen – I’d like to see how Danny Dyer would survive in untamed Epping Forest.
A film like this depends on its action, and on that front it is almost flawless. Jaa has picked up developed several styles including flamboyant and uncompromising swordplay.
He shows of his skills with various weapons as well as giving us some of the best hand-to-hand fights put on film. Again, the mantra of ‘no wires, no CGI, no stunt doubles’ is on display and Jaa thrusts himself fearlessly into the middle of the action.
Unlike other action stars, when Jaa hits you, it’s going to hurt… a lot!
If anything, the medieval setting harms some of the film’s action as we have become accustomed to it thanks to films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. This might be a grittier version of those films, but there was more fun to be had in watching Jaa smash someone’s head into a kitchen sink (as in the standout Spiral staircase sequence from Tom Yum Goong) rather than the open play areas here.
Ong Bak: The Beginning aims to be ‘epic’ across the board, but has only a limited success. The action is up to the task but the story falls flat. It’s still a good visual exercise boasting more excitement and energy than a hundred Hollywood genre films combined. Hopefully, the next Ong Bak will get things right on all fronts.
Running time: 114mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: February 15, 2010