Thursday, January 26, 2006

Chapter 144: In Which Ash Finally Goes Too Far And Compares The Thai To Animals.

Ong-Bak
2003, Thailand
Prachya Pinkaew
DVD

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a martial arts film I really enjoyed. And it’s going to be a while yet, I think, if this is the best Asia can come up with when it’s not busy fantasizing about naked schoolgirls. Ong-Bak, and its star Tony Jaa, has been hailed as a renaissance of sorts for the Asian action film, but while the film is enjoyable on a certain level, it offers nothing new. A big deal has been made of the fact that Jaa does all his own stunts, but I don’t see anything here to suggest that hiring a stuntman to be your lead actor is anything other than a horrible, horrible idea. Jaa is an expert in Muay Thai, the ancient Thai art of looking good on camera, but he has no charisma, nor any acting ability to speak of. Most of this movie is composed of slow-motion double and triple takes of him kneeing people in the top of the head, which is acting of a sort, though mainly it’s just acting stupid. It’s all real, which is impressive, I suppose, though all that really proves is that Thailand has great stunt-people and very few safety standards.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra posing for a photograph with his wife.

Jaa plays Ting, a villager in pursuit of the stolen head of the titular Ong-Bak, one of those strange Asian deities who apparently must be worshipped by killing people with your elbows. Ting is a small town boy with big city dreams of concussing people in groups of a dozen or more, so there’s not a lot of depth to the movies. There’s some running, a lot of flipping, and whenever the screenwriters get tired of penning dialogue, we’re taken to a sleazy fight club where stereotypical foreigners engage is a series of increasingly ludicrous matches that eventually degenerate into a mix of UFC and WWE matches. If that’s the sort of thing that excites you, then I’m surprised you can read this review.

Ong-Bak Screenwriter Big Poppa Pump.

Me, I prefer a little story to accompany my ass-kicking. I realize that’s a little like asking for a plot to go along with Nikki Hunter taking two dicks in the shitter, but I can’t help it. I live in a downtown major city, so if I just wanted to see a fight I could throw a couple quarters into the crowd of homeless Indians that congregate in Needle Park after sundown. And that’s exactly what Ong-Bak lacks. Plot, not drunk Indians. All of them were busy in The New World. Ong-Bak is comprised almost entirely of a bunch of fights, with lengthy scenes involving people in chase scenes jumping through stuff like trained monkeys. Not to suggest that the Thai are monkeys. No, they’re much too large for that, although still too small to be considered real people. But they are, however, well-trained, at least in the school of American action filmmaking. Ong-Bak is just a bunch of bored clichés spiced up with some admittedly cool martial arts. It’s complete with car chases, explosions, impossibly shrill female characters, and a childish sense of morality better suited for a Three Ninjas movie than a chop-socky picture. Jaa’s Ting is a flawless, noble man, straight out of a US action flicks, trained to kill but unwilling to fight unless he sees someone hitting a woman or selling drugs to kids or being communist. It’s as American as they come, except slightly spicier.

It's all in the pacing. And the curry.

And that’s entirely the problem. I’ve said this before, but I remember the days when national cinemas had distinct identities. Now, however, most countries just turn out clones of American films. The last Thai movie I saw was equally dumb, and even once-solid Asian powerhouses like South Korea are slowly reducing themselves to our simpleminded level. Honestly, how am I supposed to deride an entire culture if the only ammunition I’m given is bad rip-offs of Best of the Best? I need to celebrate diversity by ridiculing it, and I can’t do that if everything’s the goddamned same. Look at me, reduced to making fun of the Thai about their size, like a baby Klansman learning the ropes, or a Republican. So please, for the sake of my increasingly un-ironic racism, let’s all try to return to the days when a foreign film actually meant a foreign film, not an American film with subtitles. And let the slurring begin.

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