There is a scene in Ong-Bak where the hero, Ting, kicks a bad guy out of a second-story plate-glass window, then jumps out after him and delivers several pummeling blows to the guy's chest while still in free-fall. At another point, Ting does cartwheels over a wok full of boiling grease and a flouring table without touching anything. And at yet another, he evades a whole gang of enemies by simply jumping up on their shoulders and running out of the room across the tops of their heads. And then there's a scene where Ting fights with his legs on fire. And...
Ong-Bak has the thinnest possible excuse for a plot, characters with all the dimension of something die-cut from the back of a cereal box, and eminently unquotable dialogue. And none of that matters, because the movie is just a clothesline for the most flabbergasting physical stunts attempted on film since Drunken Master II. When Ong-Bak had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Midnight Madness program, the audience gave it a standing ovation — something no other film in the 16-year history of the program had ever received. Me? I grinned like an idiot all the way through. You want meaning and social significance, go watch Ikiru.
Ong-Bak stars Phanom Yeerum as the earnest Ting, a martial-arts hero to the little backwater Thai village of Ong-Bak. The very first scene has him competing in a brutal variant of capture-the-flag, which involves climbing a tree naked and throwing everyone else off the branches with one's bare hands (or feet, or whatever else is handy). Not long after, gangsters vandalize the town's statue of Buddha, tearing off its head and hocking it on the black market. Ting is incensed, and with the support of his village elders, heads off to the big city to get it back.
Ting is totally unequipped to deal with city life, and he's no detective, either. When he hooks up with his old friend George (Mum Jok Mok), who's now a wheeler-dealer in the city's underbelly, George stiffs him for the seed money he received from his fellow villagers for the mission and blows it on a cage match. Ting follows him to the fight club, literally walks into the middle of a battle, and before he knows it is fighting an army of the meanest Bangkok street brawlers imaginable. (He also doesn't understand showmanship: when the first challenger charges him, Ting puts him down with one blow to the side of the neck. Blam! End of fight.)
The first 20 minutes of the film are all setup, so very little happens until Ting reaches the club. Then the film explodes forward and doesn't look back for a second. This part of the film also features Ting and George being chased on foot through what looks like most of Bangkok's alleyways, which is where that amazing little cartwheel stunt I talked about comes into play (along with about a dozen other shots that are no less gape-inducing). For a film that was shot on a mere $650,000 budget, it's got a slick, professional look all the way through, and some of the camerawork and editing is just as electric as the fighting.
Eventually a plot of sorts accrues. It turns out that one of the organizers of the extreme fights is also responsible for a good deal of idol theft, including the head in question. He's one of the more memorable bad guys I've seen in movies like this: a wheelchair-bound paraplegic with a tracheotomy hole, speaking with the aid of a battery-operated buzzer. (One subtle running gag, in a movie not exactly memorable for its subtlety, is that his batteries seem to always be dying on him when he's in the middle of a Bad Guy Speech.) He also has a whole army of street toughs to back him up, and Ting faces off with every single one of them throughout the film — usually five or six at a time.
I love how movies like this often mock their own cliches. At one point George dive-tackles a guy off of a motorcycle and starts pummeling him — then makes the mistake of trying to punch him in the head when he's wearing a bike helmet. Another scene has a bunch of baddies lounging around, and then has Ting roaring into frame and clobbering them all one after the other in one unbroken shot. Then one of the guys gets up...and Ting simply slams him back down with an elbow to the top of the head, en passant. And then there's a three-wheel trolley chase that kids chase-movie conventions as much as it employs them (and proves once and for all that three-wheeled vehicles do not corner well at high speeds).
Fans of action movies often complain that with wire stunts, CGI and assorted other “helper” techniques to make even Keanu Reeves into a karate master, the genre has become diluted. I agree. One of the reasons it's a delight to see even an older Jackie Chan scramble up a wall like a monkey is because he's doing it, and he makes it look so spontaneous and unforced that we can't help but grin. Phanom Yeerum doesn't quite have Jackie's instant charisma — he's a little too stiff and unsmiling — but given that this is his first movie role and his moves are already so good, I'm willing to forgive a great deal.
Movies like this are strong evidence that the Thai film industry is finding a distinctive and competitive voice. Look at what's come from Thailand lately: 6ixtynin9, Mon-rak Transistor, Nang Nak, Last Life in the Universe, Bangkok Dangerous (although many people would consider that to be a transplanted Hong Kong film), The Eye, Legend of Suriyothai, and now Ong-Bak. Not all of them are great movies, but they're worth reckoning with — especially Ong-Bak, which is like a gigantic cinematic dare: “Top this, people!” If someone does, I may need rescuscitation.