As the soft-spoken Tony Jaa shares with me that, through cinema, he fervently hopes to spread the word of Muay Thai as a positive part of his native Thailand's heritage and culture, and that he's optimistic that people will recognize there's more to Muay Thai than just bashing someone's brains out in a ring, something occurred to me that on the surface seemed impossible, but after careful thought it wasn't.
If Jaa's much-hyped (and deservedly so) debut film ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR is successful, he'll not only be just the fifth legitimate Asian martial artist to make the action film crossover from Asia to Hollywood, but he'll also be the first non-Chinese and first Thai actor of the five. And with wide-eyed wonderment Jaa gives thanks to his four predecessors.
When you get down to it, Hong Kong martial arts cinema became a part of American pop culture in 1971, and since that time only four martial arts-trained Asian actors have successfully made the transition from Asian film to Hollywood and starred in A-list films, and they're all Chinese; Bruce Lee, Robin Shou, Jackie Chan, then Jet Li. As I was mulling this over, I'm thinking, "Really?" Yes, really.
Also, only a few other Asian martial arts actors have had the chance to appear in American-made martial arts-themed films – such as Bolo Yeung, Yasuaki Kurata, Sonny Chiba and Toshiro Mifune – though never as the main character. It just shows you how closed the doors are in Hollywood to Asian leads. Truly, things haven't really changed that much since Bruce Lee. Well, that's a different story. But the point is that Jaa is in a very unique position; he's an unknown actor, knocking on the doors of Hollywood with one film under his belt from a film industry that about 98% of Americans probably don't even know exists. In the words of Johnny Cougar Mellencamp, "Ain't that America."
Inspired by the martial arts prowess and Chinese cultural identity-creating icon of Bruce Lee, the fight choreography genius of Jackie Chan, the stylism of Jet Li and getting his first break in martial arts film by Robin Shou, Jaa has found his own martial arts niche, a highly stylized version of Muay Thai. It's a niche that, outside of Thailand, hasn't really been fully explored or featured in many martial arts films to date. The few examples that immediately come to mind are the Chang Cheh-directed, Ti Lung-starring DUEL OF THE FISTS (1971), Jimmy Wong Yu's ONE-ARMED BOXER (1971) and the sequel MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976), Meng Fei's KING BOXER (1972), Ng See Yuen's KING OF THE KING BOXERS with Bill Blanks, and dare I mention Van Damme's KICKBOXER and it's "what's the point" four sequels (maybe more by now). But when you see ONG BAK, you'll know that it's nothing like these films, it's more like a non-comedic throwback to Jackie Chan's films from the mid-1980s, full of vicious and violent traditional Muay Thai elbow and knee strikes and bone-crunching stunts that reminds us of why we used to love Hong Kong action films from that era.
For those of us in the know, Jaa is truly the only martial arts actor over the past 15 years or so who doesn't use wirework (even as a safety device), special effects, and does ALL of his own stunts. Why has he chosen this dangerous route when it's obvious, like the old Chan films, one mistake and that's it, end of career. Through a translator, Jaa tells me, "Back in my village, I recall watching all the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films on outdoor screens, usually a large white sheet, when traveling projectionists came in to the village, and I fell in love with those movies and wanted to get into film because of it. And when you watch Lee and his emotion and shear intensity, how can that not move you?
"But Jackie on the other hand is amazing with his physical and gymnastic abilities and the guts it takes to do those stunts. This is what I wanted to do as well, also to bring back that feeling of the old Hong Kong action films from Jackie's times, to show those kinds of stunts again to the public's eyes. I mean I'm sure you and many out there have seen a lot of the action fighting films that Jackie obviously inspired, and they show a lot of martial arts; but even then, except for a few, they all use wires, stunt doubles, and I'd wonder why don't they just always show the real abilities. And since I can, I wanted to do it this way.
"But most importantly, because I am too a stuntman and do all my own stuff for real, I also want to show the world Muay Thai in a way that it has never been seen in film before, in a stylized way, and to show the other sides of Muay Thai most people don't know about except what they see in kickboxing rings and such."
And what does he mean by the other sides of Muay Thai that most people don't really now about? The Muay Thai most people are familiar with is considered a sport and not a martial art, and has only been around since 1930. It is actually a watered-down version of a more vigorous and lethal form of the ancient martial art called Muay Boran, which comes from an even older version of Pahuyuth (systems of Thai martial arts) called Ling Lom "air monkey" that has its foundations in Krabi-Krabong. What's interesting about all of this is that although the ancient forms of Thai's Pahuyuth are steeped in Buddhist notions, the Ling-Lom aspect of Muay Boran has its foundations in the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, where traditional Muay Boran fights were actually dances to honor the story "The Legend of Ramayana" and the fights between the various deities involved, which of course includes the hero Hanuman. Similar to Chinese kung fu, where each technique of a form has a specific name, many of the maneuvers in Muay Boran forms have names based on the fighting postures of the gods from "Ramayana" aka "The Prince of Light."
Seemingly it is this light that Jaa's character brings to ONG BAK with his manly righteousness and virtues that embody his art, superbly translated by director Prachya Pinkaew into a film that shows a traditional Thai village, with a folk culture successfully resisting the surrounding high-tech world that seems to be slowly engulfing a country trying to keep up with the rest of the world.
One morning, when the back-jungle village of Nong Pradu rises to greet the light of day, darkness settles on their psyche. The head of their village-deity's statue has been stolen, and the hamlet's only idyllic Muay Thai disciple Ting (Jaa) volunteers to travel the illicit, dark and dangerous heart of Bangkok in hopes of peacefully retrieving the village's symbol of life: Ong Bak.
Although returning the statue head to the village elders is as predictable as Bruce Lee eventually having to fight in THE BIG BOSS, it's the martial arts confrontations against giant muscle-bound white Farangs in illegal bare-knuckle fights that introduces the audience to visions of gut-wrenching glee. These acts of belligerence forced upon the unwitting Ting are quickly and intelligently counter-emotioned by director Pinkaew, as Ting has a delightful gymnastic steeplechase sequence through the cluttered back alleys of Bangkok accompanied by his bumbling "Sin City" sidekick George, guilefully portrayed by Petchthai Wongkamlao, Thailand's version of Japan's Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (who recently starred as Zatoichi in Japan's new-fangled approach to the legendary cinematic character). But the highlights of the film are not only Jaa's bouts with the seething, meth-induced fits of pugilistic mayhem by the film's rabidly epileptic adversary, Samin (pit-bullishly played by Chatthapon Pantanaunkul), but also Jaa's outrageous stunts like with his deadly knee-drop strikes, elbows of fury, attack of the SUV and the far-out fire kicks.
"Ah yes, the stunts," Jaa wryly grins. "Although the SUV gag was – I think – the scariest, I really had to concentrate during the deserted gas station stunt where I pour gasoline on myself and do that jumping, aerial kick. I actually got burned pretty bad in that scene because once my pants caught fire the flames rapidly spread upwards very fast and burnt my eyebrows, armpit hairs, eyelashes and my nose. Then after a few more burning takes, we finally got it right."
Although not on the film, if you watch the "making of" out-takes, you can see that initially nobody on set was familiar with how to safely do the fire stunt — as evident when the flames begin to creep up his body and spread to his face (he remains standing up and moving around). The thing to do is get on the ground; in this way the flames stay localized longer, then you have your safety people close by to immediately douse the flames.
"We actually spent a lot of time preparing all the action fight sequences," Jaa continues. "We just didn't show up on set and do them; we worked on all the choreography for many months before shooting the film, to make sure we knew what we wanted to do ahead of time. And all the fights and movements try to bring out certain aspects of Muay Thai, like the foot stomping and hand and body posturing."
Jaa started training in Muay Thai at age 15, trekking through the jungles from his home in Surin, near the northeastern Thai-Cambodian border, to a village called Maha Sarakham where he'd practice other kinds of martial arts and various martial arts weapons for eight hours a day under former Thai action movie hero Phanna Rithikari. However, his gymnastic skills started at an earlier age. As a kid working in his father's rice paddies, he would jump up onto his pet elephants and somersault into the river. As time went by, his teacher Phanna would have Jaa work on films doing menial labor, like being the water boy, setting up the dolly and lights, giving him the chance to see how things were done on set. Such work just re-emphasized to Jaa that he wanted to be a film star like his mentor Phanna. In fact, ONG BAK was born on the set of Jaa's first gig, being Robin Shou's stunt double on MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (1997).
"I remember being on that set," Jaa recalls, "and me and my master were saving up money to present a film to the director of ONG BAK, and spoke at length with Phanna and told us to think of something that had something to do with Muay Thai; then we started forming the plot. So as you can see, it has taken us really eight years to complete this film from inception to final version."
Initially there were no plans to show ONG BAK in America, and it wasn't until Luc Besson came along and saw something he liked about it (undoubtedly the same things we all like), which prompted him to buy the worldwide distribution rights of the film and add in a new soundtrack.
Jaa admits, "It never really ever occurred to me that this film would be shown outside of Thailand. My dream with this film was that it would be successful in Thailand and people would like it. That goal was attained and I'm proud of that. But now that it's going to be shown in America, again, I just hope that I can show the American audience Muay Thai. Yes, that would make me happy."
Jaa closes with a few philosophical thoughts and tries to dispel the number of growing rumors spreading over the internet. After a pleasant smile and polite sigh, he first says that he wasn't even aware that Jackie was planning to make a DRUNKEN MASTER 3, so suffice it to say he's not been asked to do the film, adding, "I also didn't break my leg while shooting ONG BAK 2, and in fact there is no ONG BAK 2. I'm actually doing this film called TOM YUM GOONG (a special kind of Thai soup) where the film is more about Muay Thai, Thai culture, and will have elephants in it – and yes, I'll be fighting on the elephants.
"In closing, I'd share with you that martial arts has given me peace, and I have learned from its meditation that it gives me calm. And if I had to summarize my philosophy of life, I'd simply tell someone to live your life with happiness, and be happy with what you are doing."