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Where EAST meets the Northwest

MUAY THAI MASTER. Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, an epic tale of revenge set hundreds of years in the past, features a huge cast, hordes of elephants, and martial arts superstar Tony Jaa. The film is screening at Portlandís Cinema 21. (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #45 (November 17, 2009), page 16.

Tony Jaa, the master of Muay Thai, returns

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

Directed by Tony Jaa

Produced by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai

Now playing in theaters nationwide

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

When Tony Jaa came out with The Protector in 2005, it seemed like it might be his breakthrough film for American audiences. The uneven acting, Australian extras, and a plot as flimsy as the movieís sets seemed reminiscent of Jackie Chan making his name with Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. Unlike Chan, however, Jaa didnít keep cranking out mid-budget kung fu movies after The Protector; nor did he graduate to Hollywood blockbusters, as Chan did with Rush Hour.

Instead, Jaa remained in the Thai milieu, working for four years on his newest film, which would also be his directorial debut. The movie that resulted, Ong Bak 2, is neither Hollywood blockbuster nor mid-budget action flick, but a strange combination of both, with amazing action, beautiful scenery, and excellent production values, but an odd, low-budget plot that may puzzle many western viewers.

Jaaís films have always had a distinctively nationalist quality, from his Muay Thai fighting style ó the national sport of Thailand ó to the distinctively Thai plots and settings. His first feature, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior, told the story of a young boy tracking down thieves who have stolen the head from his villageís sacred Buddha statue, while The Protector starred Jaa as the defender of an elephant, a powerful national Thai symbol, against foreign poachers.

Ong Bak 2 continues the Thai theme, though itís an odd sort of sequel/prequel. The action occurs 500 years before the first film. The main character, Tien, is involved in a nationalist plot as he sits at the center of the struggle for imperial power in historical Thailand, a position he doesnít recognize at first.

Escaping a mysterious tragedy to open the film, Tien is soon rescued by bandits and raised as one of them. He doesnít remember life before his escape, and the film slowly reveals those details through Tienís memories as he grows older and is trained in a wide variety of martial arts by the Bandit King. Here, of course, is where the film gets good for martial arts fans.

Jaa practices his skills and passes the obligatory fight tests by the Bandit King, who then declares Tien ready to lead the thievesí raids. With chin-length hair surrounding his face like a sweaty, muddy curtain, Jaa throws elbows, knees, shins, and fists. He engages in a bit of drunken boxing and sometimes wields a spear, sword, or staff, and even gets an assist from ó of course ó an elephant.

Jaaís athleticism is as stunning as his fighting skills, although he doesnít have quite as many spinning midair kicks or "impossible" moves as his previous films. Instead, he substitutes classic one-against-many showdowns, often alternating between two foes, one in front and one behind him. Here, he achieves a kind of dancing rhythm that, combined with his strength, athleticism, and timing, is truly impressive.

Beyond this red meat for Jaa fans, there is spectacular scenery and period-accurate details, from the tribal tattoos and awful dentition of the cast to the medieval filth of the towns. Portland residents will feel right at home in the constant rain and mud, while nature lovers will be in awe at several spectacular long camera shots, revealing a cinematographer who is as proud of his country as the writer.

The splintered presentation of the nationalist plot is interesting, with backtracking and flashbacks filling us in on the details behind the mysterious opening scene. Similar to Memento or Pulp Fiction, however, once the fragmented plot assembles itself, the underlying storyline is rather ordinary. Though the details of the court machinations are difficult to follow, itís ultimately fairly banal, featuring a rebellious lord battling a treacherous lord who usurps the throne.

As in any martial arts movie, most of the storyline occurs in order to allow Jaa to fight as often as possible, and the plot twists used to accommodate this may leave some viewers scratching their heads. Worse, the film wraps up with a non-ending that will both baffle western audiences and leave the door ó and cash register ó wide open for a sequel.

The plot also requires as little actual acting as possible from Jaa, allowing actor Natdanai Kongthong (playing the young Tien) to do most of the heavy dramatic lifting. Jaa, instead, must merely look either brooding or fierce, neither of which is terribly convincing because he does so little else. Jaa should take a hint from Jackie Chan, who took years to achieve anything resembling adequate acting. Chan still wonít win any Oscars, but he manages to generate emotion from the audience just by trying.

A film thatís spent so much on production values ought to work a little harder on a more solid storyline that doesnít turn a fun ride into a long trip to nowhere. That will bother some moviegoers, while others will shrug; martial arts movies arenít known for coherent plots, after all. Itís just that the beautiful vistas and attention to detail promised so much more.

Jaaís fights will still turn heads and make jaws drop, and itís a step up from The Protector and a huge leap up from the first Ong Bak. Visually stunning and satisfying, Ong Bak 2 will definitely whet American Jaa fansí appetites for more. In a genre that becomes more homogenized each time Hollywood absorbs another star (Chan, Ang Lee, Jet Li), Jaaís Thai angle is refreshing; film aficionados can only hope for a more internally consistent product.

Ong Bak 2 is playing at theaters nationwide. To learn more about the film, visit <www.ongbak2themovie.com>.