To honor the Buddha on the day of his arrival, a couple of friends and I went to see the Thai martial arts flick Ong Bak. It was filmed in Thai, subtitled in Korean. I understood naught of the language save the insults of various Westerners on their path to defeat.
Even so, the plot was simple enough and the action sufficiently graceful that no aural comprehension was required. The intrigue was the classic epic of idealistic peasant meets the immorality of the city, and because he's a kick-ass, he then purges the city of its sins. He does this with honor and restraint, as all heroes should.
This is not to say that the plot was humdrum. Rather than being some silly international conspiracy, we've-got-to-save-the-world-and-get-the-girl story, Ong Bak begins with a simple, devious theft of a village Buddhahead. Later we find that there is a whole ring of Buddha statue stealing hoodlums. The plot, then, is really rooted in Thailand, and its social commentary is traditionalist. Don't sell your heritage to get drugs, the moral runs.
But it's not the plot or commentary that makes the film good - it's the violence. Such beautiful, fluid, gritty violence. The star, Tony Jaa, is masterfully in command of his body; he seems to dance as much as fight. He hits hard, of course, but with a finesse and speed that is a pleasure to watch. And, in fact, the editors saw fit to let you watch each cool blow two or three more times from various angles. This film is unapologetically about fighting.
So unashamed, as a matter of fact, that you don't mind when the director adds random hoops of barbwire for Jaa to jump through or other such props placed for blatant dramatic effect. It's cool. And that's all this viewer requires. After watching zillions of Jackie Chan flicks with marketplace mayhem, Jaa's work is remarkably creative and acrobatic. I don't know what his particular style of fighting is, but if you don't make the cut, a few years of their training will set you as an acrobat for life.
The color palette, too, sets this film apart. Grainy, with lots of grays, browns, oranges, and a sort of dun shade. It has the subtle effect of calming the film, keeping it from being too flashy and pristine like so many contemporary kung fu movies. Not to say it isn't well made. The cinematographer had a eye for interesting angles; the lighting is a soft glow, not harsh, flashy, warehouse fluorescent. The editor was a little choppy with some of the transitions; he could have used some fading.
Ong Bak is strongly religious, but a satisfactorily unevangelistic way. So much of martial arts cinema cheapens Eastern religion by watering it down to rote mysticism or cheesy aphorisms. Hollywood Buddhists don't help much either. In this film, however, Buddhism is portrayed as a peasant religion; the villagers’ grief is tangible. Yes, there is a drought, and yes, the drought clears up at the end; but there are no gigantic electric storms when the head is returned. What we are left with most is simple piety. The people were distraught at their loss; one of the most moving scenes is when they pool their savings to help Jaa in his quest to rescue their Buddha. Jaa is clearly fortified by the Buddha, but in quiet ways - he prays in a temple, to no obvious effect; he looks into his pupil-less eyes when he needs strength. No hamfistedness here. It shows what can happen when you mix devotion with martial prowess. The evil are destroyed, and all becomes right in the world.