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Bashing Heads for Buddha

'The Thai Warrior' fights to get his country back from white pervs and fratheads.

By Dorothy Woodend 4 Mar 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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According to writer John C. Gardner, there are only two plots in the whole world: someone comes to town and someone leaves town. Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior has both of them.

The action begins with the strange scenario of mud-daubed men climbing to the top of a giant tree to capture a flag. This rather unusual activity signals the start of a village festival, an auspicious occasion that happens every 24 years. But even while the locals are inside the temple, trouble has rolled into town. Don (Wannakit Sirioput), a Bangkok thug arrives and steals the local Buddha's head (the eponymous Ong-bak). The responsibility for getting the head back, and saving the village falls on a young man named Ting. Ting (Tony Jaa) may not be the most frightening name ever given to a hero; it's not a moniker like the Terminator, Rocky, or even Snake Plissken. But Ting has something none of those others do: he has faith. With only his belief in the Buddha and a handkerchief of coins, he sets off to the big bad city.

Luckily, Ting also has the ability to leap entire cars, vault through the air, and hit people with his elbows so hard that their heads explode. Things that will serve him well when he, quite literally, hits Bangkok.

Bangkok is everything that is wrong when West meets East: crime ridden, drug ridden, and prostitute ridden. It's a soul sucking hole that has consumed George (Petchtai Wongkamlao) who was once a simple village boy named Humlae. George's Western name comes complete with a new set of values including cheating, stealing, lying and gambling. With his girl sidekick Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol), the pair scam their way across the city. Ting bumps into George, who almost immediately steals the village pennies to bet on something that looks like a human cockfight. Naturally, our gentle hero wants his money back, and soon finds himself in the ring. Here is the money shot, the price of admission, the arena where action stars are made and broken. And here, Tony Jaa is stunning. His Muay Thai is so efficient that the big fight is over in one move, much to the dismay of the audience.

Look Ma, no wires!

The film is worth watching merely to marvel at what the human body is capable of. There are no wires or special effects, only what is humanly impossible, spinning, leaping and hurtling through the air, occasionally on fire, with certain shots being replayed two and three times for your delectation and amazement.

The story is not didactic, nor proselytizing, but in amongst the action and silly jokes, there is the occasional sense that these characters are fighting for more than just a lump of stone, they want their country back. Ong-bak's director Prachva Pinkaew has added a formidable new addition to what may very well be a growing film genre: the revenge on the West film. While Travellers and Magicians very gently intimated that perhaps the West isn't all it was cracked up to be, Ong-bak splinters arms, cracks spines and bashes heads for Buddha!

The underlying subtext is right out in the open, the evil gangster that chases George and Ting through the streets of Bangkok wears a t-shirt with a picture of Al Pacino on the front. There are beautiful young girls selling themselves for drugs, and crime lords selling off the country's antiquities, Buddhas and sculpture ripped out of their temples, and sold abroad. The final sequence where Ting stumbles upon a den of thieves beheading an enormous Buddha has curious echoes to the real world, where the shards of the two Buddhas destroyed in Afghanistan have been showing up in antiques markets around the world.

Pounding the pervs

It was bound to happen. Many visitors to Thailand say the Thai people must have a weird sense of Westerners, because so many of them are rich white pervs or drunken fratheads. If this idea makes you a little uneasy, then the scene where, our hero Ting is lured into the ring to defend Thai womanhood by a massive hairy Australian by the name of the Big Bear will give you the howling heebie geebies. Chivalry isn't dead, it's alive and well in Thailand. Go Ting! Shake your ding-a-ling. And he does. Every part of the human body that inflicts injury is put to work and you can't help but scream hooray when this small lithe man beats the crap out of whitey. After all, whitey pretty much deserves it.

Ong-bak is only the most recent release in a burgeoning Thai film industry, another interesting offering is P, made by British director, Paul Spurrier. Spurrier actually speaks Thai, and lived in the country for a number of years, studying the culture before he started filming. P is screening at the upcoming Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film and has already acquired some early rumbles thanks in part to a raving review from Harry Knowles' Ain't it Cool website and mention on Canada's own film blog Twitchfilm. The story involves a young girl, who has been taught traditional magic by her grandmother. When her Grandma falls ill, her granddaughter moves to the city to try and make enough money to buy medicine. Soon enough she tricked into plying the oldest trade around. Evil ensues, and a bawb, a spirit with a taste for human guts, is born. As noted in the the Brussels film festival guide, P uses the folkloric figure of the bawb "as a metaphor for drug addiction and the depiction of the harsh reality behind the Thai sex industry."

Next action hero?

Spurrier doesn't see the theme of Thais fighting for their traditional culture as anything new. "I would say that Thailand has always been fighting for many hundreds of years, and will have to continue to fight. A foreigner in Thailand is known as a 'farang' - also the Thai word for a guava. I have a theory that a lot of people visit Thailand, are made to feel most welcome, have a wonderful time, love the Thai people, and when they leave barely notice that they are poorer than when they arrived. However, it is a continual struggle," Spurrier said. "Thailand too faces enormous pressures to change, to globalize, to lose its identity. It is certainly true that Thai people love a joke about foreigners, and scenes like the ones in Ong-bak, where the ridiculously large 'farang' gets beaten up by the diminutive hero, are thought extremely fun. I don't think you would be wrong in thinking that there was a certain metaphorical aspect to that."

Metaphoric or not, success comes with its own set of issues. While Tony Jaa may be the latest edition of exotic action star, following in the tradition of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Arnold himself, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain his identity as a Thai warrior. It probably won't long before Hollywood comes knocking, wanting to replace Buddha with a baseball bat and rename Ting the Tinganator.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee on Fridays.  [Tyee]

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