Friday, May 15, 2009

Movie Review: Ong Bak 2

Back in 2003, a martial arts flick out of Thailand appeared in mainstream cinemas around the world and made a big splash with the intense physicality of its action sequences, and its distinctive Thai flavour that set it apart from the more familiar Chinese kung fu films. That movie was Ong Bak and it introduced the world to a new action star in Tony Jaa.

Following that film’s success, Jaa followed it up with the lackluster Tom Yum Goong (also known as The Protector). While the plot of Ong Bak was not particularly brilliant, at least it made sense, but TYG was the action equivalent of a porn movie; a silly threadbare plot serving as only as an excuse to fill the space between its (admittedly impressive) fight scenes.

Jaa is back again starring in and directing Ong Bak 2, but bizarrely, it has absolutely no relationship to the original Ong Bak. Rather than modern-day Bangkok, Ong Bak 2 is set in the year 1471 in a Thailand riven by upheaval and the warring Ayuthaya and Sukhothai kingdoms. Jaa plays Tian, the son of a general slain by the would-be ruler. Tian escapes as a young boy and is raised by bandits who instruct him in the fighting arts. But as you can guess, he’s inevitably going to seek revenge against the man who killed his family.

That’s about all I could work out from the plot of Ong Bak 2. Because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m willing to concede that perhaps the dodgy pirated DVD that I watched the movie on had some inconclusive subtitling, which may have contributed to my not really understanding what was going on. I don’t mean the storyline is complicated in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, more in a “let’s not worry too much about plot details” kind of way. I found myself asking too many questions. Why are they fighting these guys? Who’s this guy? Are Tony Jaa’s teeth really that bad or is it just his character? And so on.

On the plus side, the film frequently looks fabulous, despite some occasionally clumsy editing. In contrast to the highly ordered world of ancient China that we are more familiar with from kung fu movies, the film’s vision of a mystical medieval Thailand is intriguing, and its costume and village set designs immaculate. Its action scenes are impressive, with numerous battles involving both unarmed combat and a multitude of weapons.

Unfortunately it falls into the same trap as Tom Yum Goong by staging fight scenes that make no real sense and serve no purpose other the production team thinking it would be a cool idea. In particular, there is a scene where an elephant inexplicably wanders into the midst of battle and just stands there, so Tian and his opponents fight atop, around and underneath the elephant. It may have sounded like an interesting idea in pre-production, but its just silly.

One of his opponents in that particular battle is the “crow ghost”, some freaky black-cloaked guy who appears out of nowhere to kick some ass with some crazy crow style. Which is kinda cool, but of course, it made me wonder: why does this freaky black-cloaked guy appear out of nowhere to kick some ass with some crazy crow style?

The films also ends on a particularly odd and unsatisfying note, but considering the preceding 115 minutes made little sense anyway, perhaps that is unsurprising.
But hey, it’s a movie that is primarily about people pummeling and slicing up each other, and on that score, its pretty good. Am I asking for too much to want a convincing storyline to go with it?

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