Apocalypse Tony Jaa! Ong Bak 2 Kicks Down the Walls of SXSW 2009!

Ong Bak 2 Tony Jaa

The adrenaline rush you have been waiting for is finally here!

Like the film, “Che“… “Ong Bak 2” simply should have been called, “JAA.” Calling it “Ong Bak 2” makes about as much sense as calling it “Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Thailand and Get Their Ass Kicked by Tony Jaa.” The film takes place in Thailand, features elephants, Tony Jaa and lots of Muay Thai, but other than that has no direct tie in or connection to “Ong Bak.” So if you are looking for any type of prequel or sequel to the original note you are being served off a completely different Tony Jaa menu and experience.

Jet Li and all other leading action men take notice, Tony Jaa is back and taking over the reigns as the best on screen fighter working in cinema today. With its impossible to match epic fighting finale, “Ong Bak 2” is the de facto high point of 2009 action cinema. Tony Jaa makes your head explode with ass kicking fury unlike anything you have ever seen. No bone or body part is spared as Jaa slaughters the screen and raises the bar of how fist pumping exciting a fight scene can be. He practically leaves every other fight scene ever lensed in the dust when the film finally cranks into high gear during its last act. There are few other action films that come remotely close to the fury and complexity that explodes during this climax. Sure its a long muddy and very foggy journey to get there, but once there Jaa seems to be taking on every other fight scene ever filmed and crumbling it up like a piece of trash saying, “You think you have seen a fight scene before? Baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” He raises the bar on how fighting can be realized in an action scene to such an other worldly level and finally places his stamp on cinema history as its going to be a long time before someone else like him comes along to make everyone else look mortal. In Ong Bak 2, Tony Jaa goes from human being to action cinema God with one of the most eye popping climaxes ever filmed! He pushes the aesthetic of what was done in “Ong Bak” to another realm of possibility and completely constructs it in an entirely new fashion. He is filming action in a completely new distinctive way as well as using his own skills to pull them off. This new combination of filmmaker and actor works best here. He does moves that are simply unreal looking as well as takes on an entirely new way of shooting and editing them together.

While the film contains a stellar dance sequence and more costumes than a Broadway musical and more weaponry than a massive war movie, its fights are going to be what you will wind up appreciating and talking about the most long after its end credits roll. The level of detail that packs the frames is a definite highlight of the film as well as its sumptuous visuals. There is a shot of Jaa and an elephant shown in side profile here that will have people talking for years. There isn’t a single person alive that could come close to replicating the action in this film. Sure you could try and shoot it frame for frame exactly as is here but the way Jaa shoots it and performs in it would make even Bruce Lee envious yet very much challenged. What Jaa does here with the action has to be appreciated for what it accomplishes which is a highly unique experience that simply cannot be replicated or ported over to anything else. This singular uniqueness and magic puts him up there with the likes of Bruce Lee and others… a very select group. Any doubts you may have had about Jaa in a certain ridiculous film he did immediately after “Ong Bak” will be gone. So lets take a moment now that all the drama is out of the way to stand up and applaud the action Jaa delivers in “Ong Bak 2!” The epic last fight scene in particular is an instant classic that adds a completely experience of artistry to it whereas “Ong Bak” felt more commercial and far less ambitious. This Stanley Kubrick-like approach to constructing action with full lush epic and grandiose details and colors and attention to every aspect of its construction will lead this film to be discussed for a damn long time. There are many cool fight scenes in contemporary cinema but few that will leave any kind of mark on history. To say that people hundred plus years from now will be scratching their head wondering how Jaa did certain things in the fight scenes here is a huge understatement. The only thing quip I have on it is that I wish there had been a far less reliance on fake CGI blood and more emphasis placed on practical fake blood.

The fact that Jaa is still relatively young and just starting out leaves the room for lots of development and progress into all the other categories of filmmaking outside of action. While he has action down and firmly has his voice as an artist alive and beating, its all these other disparate moving parts of telling a story and his development in that will ultimately be the judge if we remember him for great action scenes or great action movies. At the moment we know he can make action scenes like no other but can he make a cohesive entirely great action movie from start to finish?

Ong Bak 2 is a tale of revenge set against amazing sets, vivid colors and uses its back drop of Thailand remarkably well. The story the film tells is a simple one but for whatever reason in its current construction is told way too in a fog and needlessly complex.

If you go back to the 90’s when Tsui Hark wasn’t content to simply rehash what he had done before or retread his established action cinema he had done from Once Upon a Time in China and decided to take offer up a new reworking and progression of it. He wanted to take action cinema and fighting to a new plain and new experience. I think this is a natural tendency for most filmmakers to continue to expand the voice in their oeuvre. With action directors they often establish a footprint earlier on of their aesthetics and construction of moving images to display an action sequence or fight. In following work its often time about finding a way to induce more adrenaline, tension or immersion into their moving images. They want the audience to feel it when a character is running or in a car chase or delivers a particularly painful blow to a bad guy. They could change up and shoot more hand held, longer takes with fewer cuts, more full on contact blows or employ a new editor and sound design crew to make what comes together on screen breath with even more life or with a completely different style.

In addition to that they want to play around with the story dynamics so there is added anticipation and excitement as the main character moves through their story arc. So in one film they may place a really mean bad guy that the good guy doesn’t face off with until the final act and in another film they may move the proposed main bad guy to the middle act and then have them killed off which leaves an up in the air final act which could feature an army of bad guys that must know be dealt with all at once. A filmmaker working in action constantly wants to raise the stakes and emotional glue for the audience.

The downside to this is often progressing ones action cinema voice can often times be too different or experimental for audiences to fully appreciate. To a certain degree many action films are viewed with a contemporary lense as opposed to a more 10,000 foot view of them. People are comparing a fight scene to recent fight scenes in other similar films versus viewing it independent of any contemporary or older established films. Its so hard sometimes to view a film completely for itself and only what its aiming to be. So in a film like Tsui Hark’s, “The Blade” the fact that Hark reworks so much framing of action and its construction with visual and sound that on first viewing can be incredibly jarring. But like fine wine the more you take it in on subsequent viewings the more you can appreciate what is being done.

I’m not in the camp that every action scene and fight should follow the same construction of framing, editing and point of view. We need the soul of the artist with filmmakers to continue to break down walls and push us into new cinematic heavens we haven’t been to of action cinema bliss. We need our filmmakers to continue to push what action for the moving image can be and to continue to heighten the experience the audience has with it.

Pushing the envelope of action and a filmmakers voice doesn’t always work either. Some experiments or attempts by a filmmaker to try and shake up what they can do or known as can often be such a left turn that the filmmaker himself seems to have left the building all together or visited a meth lab to often during the making of.

So the question is how do you as a filmmaker push the envelope and give the audience a new form and raised bar of action cinema without completely alienating it or moving completely out of your own strengths? I think the filmmakers that get it right use the same voice and palette of strengths that got them their in the first place to try something new and extend past their existing comfort zone. Its when a filmmaker completely ditches their voice and their strengths that you have to worry.

With Ong Bak 2, I think we can draw a parallel with Tony Jaa’s efforts to what Tsui Hark was going after in “Blade.” Jaa isn’t content to give us another film from the exact same mold as “Ong Bak.” He wants to take Muay Thai action cinema to a whole other level of cinema magic. He has visions of jaw dropping fight sequences that will rival anything ever put on celluloid. He has visions of an immaculate dense with period details story. Its in all these lofty ambitions that “Ong Bak 2” mostly crumbles under its own weight. It takes the standard story template of a child witnessing his parents death and seeking out revenge at all costs with the usual array of moral complications that will give them pause to what degree and how far they are willing to go. Getting revenge usually requires a greater cost to a character than had they just gone on their way and not bothered with it. Once the lead character sets down the path of revenge and enters the jaws of hell to defeat the bad guys and settle the score… there is no turning back. Sure you get revenge but everyone you know and love could be killed in the process and you yourself could be dead or permanently disfigured. At what cost is revenge worth it for the lead character? How far are they willing to go?

The storytelling of “Ong Bak 2” is the weakest part of its tale of revenge. We know as an audience what the stakes should be and need a healthy dose of moral road blocks and additional key character turning points in order to ratchet up our emotional glue on what is transpiring. Instead in this outing Jaa simply moves from scene to scene and fight to fight without the stakes themselves directly reassessed or giving us conventional complications on any level whether moral or emotional. There are some passing attempts at this but mostly through flash backs and back story. While you can admire its taking Muay Thai action to a completely other level and energy on screen you wish it had more basic fundamental storytelling support at getting it from point a to z. We need a road map or hand holding us as each goal is obtained and moral dilemma to draw us in and fully loose ourselves at what is going on onscreen. You never really get a clear sense in its current editing where exactly Jaa is in his quest of revenge. We do get the back story of how he got to be where he is. But once we get to where he is the film rather turns to record scratch editing to at random throw us into scenes with no real semblance of inter connecting or clear guidance. We get to a certain level he is finally on his mission of taking out all that did him wrong but we are thrown in and out of this in such a big fog of a fever dream it works more like a descent into an abstract lucid dream. The fact that its storytelling keeps the audience in this fog through much of its run time undermines the huge epic fight sequence at the end. Disconnecting surrealism rarely works. You’re scrambling so much internally trying to keep up with where we are and why were are in any given scene that whatever is happening loses the full weight of its impact. Imagine in Bullitt if during the entire chase sequence you are thinking during most of it, “wait why the f*ck is McQueen doing this, what is going on?” They led us up to that point for the car chase to happen and for the audience to be able to fully immerse ourselves in it without having to suddenly be thrust into it at random and wonder what the hell was going on. If Ong Bak 2 had spent more time interconnecting its disparate elements together so we knew where we were and why we were there and what was next then we might have been talking about one of the best action films ever made. Well there is also the added Jaa real life episode that also greatly complicated the finishing of it, so it still as a film faced a huge uphill battle in coherency.

What rattled Jaa or caused the big awol episode to happen is not known by me. It seemed like the deal was to a certain extent his lofty vision and having the entire film in his head and perhaps the entire crew and set having to constantly rattle him like a pinata hoping to get his ideas and vision out is what led to it? Some artists aren’t always instantly creative. It takes a certain moment, song, break up or event to get them to finish a scene, moment or act in the story they are telling. They may have certain parts figured out but others haven’t come to them yet. On a film set if the story isn’t completely detailed out on what should be happening and how, it often leads to huge delays with everyone wondering when the filmmaker will come out of their trailer (or equivalent) and provide guidance on what is to come next. This of course leads to huge discord that ripples throughout everything. Maybe Jaa got thrown into making this far to soon and well before he had a chance to fully have everything fleshed out in his mind on how he was going to tell this story and its tale of revenge. He strikes me as someone that wants to stay pure to his vision and not take any compromises on filming something just for the sake of doing so. He wants whatever happens to be organic and to match his the detail of his vision to a tee. There is no detail to small for him not to want to tinker with or explore in making sure it matches his vision just right. This sort of filmmaking perfectionism like Michelangelo Antonioni can really drive film crews and sets mad! It’s even worse if as mentioned the creator of its story has to be shaken like a pinata to get more of the story or scene out of them so they can continue filmming and ultimately wrap. Was it Jaa’s stubbornness and steadfast devotion to his vision that ultimately plagued him and caused a rift that had him leave thinking that if the film failed to match his vision and if he sold out in any parts he wanted no part of it. Often times a producer may want to just move ahead and film something regardless of what it is as they have an entire film crew they are paying a huge amount of money and each second they aren’t doing something costs them. This leads to input with a filmmaker to hurry up or film something against their wishes, “Ok, we know you want the scene to be your vision but since you haven’t figured it out, what if we did this, this or that?”

I thought I had read another potential source of this conflict being that Jaa simply didn’t know how he wanted the last big epic fight scene to be and kept putting it off and putting it off. He was building towards this massive epic fight to climax the film but no one could get him to fully do it or finish it. This is an interesting theory but in the rumor category. In film lore there is always the reported official story of why something happen and then behind the scenes there is always the “real story” of what happened that very rarely ever comes out if not decades later down the line in a biography. We all got an “official story” but what the “real story” is has yet to be written. So everything out there is pure speculation and hunches. So I can’t really offer up a sound logical take on what went wrong but sort of theorized two possibilities.

Some might say that conflict on a set is bad. Or the conflict on the set of this film ultimately undermined it. I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment. Often times if your entire shoot is breezy and everyone is holding hands and dancing with love beads the film could simply be too homogenized and plain. There is good conflict and there is bad conflict. Good conflict to me is where individuals making a film are all constantly pushing each other to make the best film they can possibly make and pouring their heart and soul into it. They don’t want a single wasted shot or anything at all to be less than perfect. In this regard it creates a synergy of unbridled focus in making a film that perfectly carries it from pre to post production to movie theaters. Sure everyone pushed each other and tempers flared but at the same time if everyone was content just to go through the paces and drive more lazily at the wheel the final film itself wouldn’t have come out the same.

To this end I think all the conflicts and pushing on “Ong Bak 2” made it into a singular unique film and not a derivative work of art. It has a very specific voice telling its story and crafting its vision even though it doesn’t at all come together very coherently. There are so many wonderful moments in this film and so many well laid out and lush details sprinkled into every set and character you can’t help but stand back and admire.

So many moments in this film breath with such a powerful distinct luminosity at letting you know Jaa the artist is speaking. We haven’t really seen Jaa the artist at work before and heard his voice. When it stands up in this film I sat back in complete wonder and admiration. When Jaa clearly translates his vision on screen, Ong Bak 2 soars as one of the best period fight films ever seen. However, we get only get fleeting glimpses of what could have been. This isn’t to say or suggest its all bad, just that the glimpses were damn good and frustrating that one solid coherent vision is lacking. Being completely off the tracks isn’t a completely bad thing as it creates its fever dream state where it feels like we are more witnessing Jaa’s descent into hell in the afterlife than a story that is transpiring in reality in the real world.

I admire Jaa’s efforts to inject something new into action cinema but his lack of roots in conventional storytelling ultimately undermine him. If he can find a good partner or creative team that he can push off a films storytelling aspects to which leave him to worry more about the films style and vision and action, he will be so much better off. Trying to do everything and especially get outside your strengths rarely works right. I think he can progress as a storyteller and continue to push himself but really this is something you hope he gives others that can share his vision to do. Another route would be pairing down a story to something he could fully sink his teeth into. I also hope in future works he is given the proper time to do all the leg work in pre-production so the vision is contained in a bottle like lightning. This would allow him greater flexibility in throwing in nuisances and getting chances to experiment while on set versus having to completely be starting from scratch each time. He needs the right supporting creative team and producers and really the sky is the limit for what he can bring to action cinema, especially with furthering how Muay Thai can be represented in it.

Wherever “Ong Bak 3” goes let us hope we don’t get any ridiculous head twitching characters or bizarrely crafted stories. Let us hope that “Ong Bak 2” is a perfect lead in to the next film. There is no doubt Tony Jaa is an unique talent with an amazing vision, lets just hope he finds better balance in fusing this with the right creative team in supporting him. As he continues to push himself to extremes lets hope he doesn’t wear himself out before he even really gets started. He puts his entire essence into what he is doing and is well spent in doing so. I don’t know if as an audience we are going to fully get into the artistry of the last act of “Ong Bak 2” any time soon with conversations taking place more along the lines of the cool in it but at some point, just like with Hark’s “Blade” I think people will circle back in be in admiration of it as one hell of a impressive and highly inspirational and lasting work of art. It’s a shame its only a part of this film that will continue to be heralded as the rest of it fails to ever really deliver outside the dance sequence and the occasional action moment here and there. It has the “what if” and “what could have been” syndrome that will always plague it and I just hope that regardless of this criticism which I think is fair that we can also carve out its good parts and especially its final act as something to praise and cherish… to give the applause it so does deserves.

And lastly lets hope Jaa doesn’t go down the path of a Peckinpah where the fighting to get the vision compromised the vision from ever being 100% of what it could have been. So many of Peckinpah’s films are great but you always wonder if there hadn’t been so much wrangling and fighting what could have been. Let’s hope 50 years from now we won’t be talking about Jaa in the same light.

***

The opening film of the Fantastic Fest midnight lineup at SXSW gave this new addition a worthy send off. Before the film audiences were treated to a naked save for a Fred Flinstone loin cloth belting out of a crazy looking midevil horn. If that wasn’t enough a beer drinking relay contest was held that pitted 5 people from the US against 5 people people from around the world. The crux of the contest is you have five people on opposing sides. The outside person kicks it off and each subsequent person can’t start drinking beer until the other has fully finished it. So instead of a traditional race relay, there was no running only beer chugging and the baton was when one beer camp was drained and the next person could begin. While the US got off the fast start the last two international players, including Ant Timpson from New Zealand’s Incredibly Strange Film Festival, displayed beer chugging prowess that made everyone else seem like Leave it to Beaver. Tim League has promised to anchor the US team tonight for the midnight screening of Black to help ensure a win.

Ong Bak 2 (official SXSW page) screens again on Sunday night and you aren’t likely to get another chance to see it on the big screen until Magnet (link) releases it later this year.

PS – I do think it would have been absolutely outrageously funny if they had played the song Karma Chameleon over the end credits of Ong Bak 2.

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