By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
At age 33, Thailand’s Tony Jaa seems poised to replace Jackie Chan in the world of Asian martial arts film. Like Jackie Chan, Jaa’s movies emphasize all-natural fights and stunts. They avoid the use of computer graphics and stuntman substitutions for the leading man.
Jaa, 22 years younger than Chan, has yet to break the majority of bones in his body. He remains, for the moment, young, strong, and up to the formidable challenges of his work.
The plot of the first “Ong-Bak” was quite simple. Jaa plays a humble marital arts student in a small Thai town. Gangsters steal the head of the town’s Buddha statue.
Jaa spends the entire film trying to get the head back. In the film, there are plenty of wild stunts and bad-guy punch-outs.
The new installment takes Jaa back almost 600 years, to 1421. He plays the role of Tien, a nobleman’s son.
Tien loses his father to assassins. A bandit leader adopts and raises him. As an adult, he must discover the truth about his father’s death and seeks vengeance.
When Tien resists becoming a slave, the slave master dumps him into a filthy and slimy pit. He soon discovers that he isn’t alone in the pit. A crocodile breaks the surface, going straight for Tien’s throat.
Later, after Tien escapes the pit and routs the slavers, the slave master crawls on the ground, begging for his life.
“I will give you a chance,” says Tien. “The same chance you gave me.” Tien insinuates that he must go into that same infernal pit.
The filmmakers could have improved the storytelling. At one point, an entire dramatic episode from the beginning of the film gets repeated, action for action.
At another point, we see a character holding an important object. But we aren’t shown or told how he acquired it.
It’s possible that the Western distributor of the film removed short sequences to reduce the length of the film.
Procedural and historical details don’t carry too much weight in the film. In a martial arts movie, the fights and stunts carry the film. It is through the fights and stunts that Jaa shows his capabilities.
As a youth, Tien moves from dancing school, which he loathes, to fighting school, which he admires. The film slyly points out how dance and marital arts have much in common. Both depend on precise body control and mastery of complex patterns. When Tien squares off against several opponents at once, the combat resembles a ballet.
In the first “Ong-Bak,” Jaa stuck mostly with Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. This technique uses mostly fists and feet. Muay Thai was appropriate for use against modern-day thugs.
But in this second film, Jaa goes far beyond the first film. The bandits put young Tien through an initiation into manhood. To succeed, he must defeat three opponents using swordplay, standing martial arts moves, and dirty, down-in-the-mud wrestling.
To avenge his father, he needs all of these fighting techniques, plus more. Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian techniques come into play. Jaa, his limbs almost a blur at times, triumphantly wields them all.
This second film has unresolved plot threads. To learn the answers to some of the points, you’ll need to watch “Ong-Bak 3,” scheduled for release next year. I’m going to put that one on my list of must-sees. ♦
“Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning” opens Friday, Oct. 23. Check local listings for theaters, show times, and prices.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.