Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ong Bak 2

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning should not be confused with Tom yum goong, which was released theatrically in the US as The Protector, but has appeared in a number of questionably legal places mislabeled as Ong Bak 2.

The real Ong Bak 2 begins in the year 1431 AD, a time of strife and siege in the history of Thailand. The countryside is full of warlords, bands of outlaws, and political upheaval. There are mystics, treachery, royal courts, and all of the fun stuff that goes accompanies a feudal society.

This is the story of Tien, the son of a high-ranking member of the military. When he is a young boy his parents are betrayed and murdered, and he is captured by tough looking slave traders with facial tattoos. Instead of waiting passively to be sold, Tien clubs the main bad guy in the face with a rock, and his captors decide to soak him in blood and toss him into a mud pit to fight an angry crocodile for sport. Tien is feisty for a boy from a privileged family, especially one who was taught to dance instead of fight, and he kills the croc. While he is locked in a life and death struggle with the aforementioned angry reptile, the slave traders are taken out by another band of outlaw raiders.

The leader of the new outlaws, Chernung (Sorapong Chatree), takes a liking to the plucky underdog, Tien, and takes him under his wing. Over a period of years the boy trains in a wide variety of weapons and martial arts, including Muay Thai, Karate, Kung Fu, Silat, and a little Jiu Jitsu thrown in for good measure. There is even a scene that tips its cap to Jackie Chan’s turn in the Drunken Master series.

Of course when young Tien grows up he turns out to be none other than Tony Jaa, who on this particular feature film is credited at star, co-director, martial arts choreographer, and action director, among others. After passing a number of physical and mental tests, Tien replaces his mentor, Chernung, as head outlaw.

Whereas Ong Bak was pretty much a hey-world-look-at-me stunt reel for Jaa, Ong Bak 2 focuses more on the story. Which is really too bad, since that is where problems arise. The story itself is fine, though you’ve seen it many times before in every single Kung Fu movie ever made. The trouble lies in the way the story is told. Is this going to be a revenge story, a story of redemption, or is he going to reconnect with his lost love, Pim (Primorata Dejudom)? There are a number of directions the narrative could go, but it never really goes anywhere. An hour into the film there is still no discernable path.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks, you jump into Tien’s memories at random, and the structure feels forced. It would flow much smoother in the story was simply told in a linear fashion from the first events to the last.

As it is, the plot is jumbled and difficult to follow at times. I’m not sure who is on who’s side, who is betraying who, and where alliances lie. Perhaps this is due to my woeful lack of knowledge about the history of Thailand, perhaps not.

That is one issue. Another is that Tien never has a concrete goal or story arc. Again, it seems like he could go in a number of ways, but he never goes anywhere. The filmmakers try to do too much in a 98-minute movie, and instead accomplish too little. There is no antagonist. There are a number of possibilities, but no one steps forward and takes over. This overall lack of focus detracts from the film and drags it down.

While the story leaves something to be desired, the action is top notch. The fight scenes are intricately choreographed, and are sure to please fans of the first movie. While Muay Thai takes center stage in Ong Bak, Ong Bak 2 features a wide variety of martial arts. The filmmakers want to embody all of the martial forms in one person, Tien. It also features something else the first film didn’t, weapons. It turns out that Jaa is just as adept with a sword as he is with his elbows, knees, and fists. There is a scene where Jaa runs on top of a herd of elephants that is reminiscent of the car surfing scenes in Teen Wolf, and the climactic battle is exactly what fans of this genre want. (Seriously, it’s more than twenty minutes long.).

In a period piece it is vital that the details not take you out of the movie, and in that regard the film looks great. It is full of elaborate set pieces and costumes, and beautiful scenery. As I said, I don’t have much knowledge of Thai history, so I don’t know how spot on the details actually are, but they certainly convinced me enough to keep watching. No one in the background is mistakenly wearing a digital watch in this movie. They even got the teeth right. One of the most distracting things I can think of is watching a western, a post-apocalyptic movie, or maybe a film about a 15th century band of Thai outlaws, where everyone has a mouthful of gleaming, perfectly white, capped teeth.

Ong Bak 2 is worth watching if you’re a fan or martial arts films, especially of Tony Jaa, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original or Tom yum goong, and prepare to be bogged down in a story that is never fully realized.

The US DVD release comes with an extra disc of special features. There is an alternate cut of the movie that has a few subtle differences. This version is called Ong Bak 2: Birth of the Dragon, there is a slight variation in structure, it is 15 minutes shorter, and there is a Thai hip-hop song over the end credits.

There is a trio of short production documentaries that are worth watching. They provide some helpful historical context for the story, and even some plot elements and information that should have been in the actual film. Apparently there was some sort of prophecy when Tien was born that said he should stay away from weapons or his life would go down the tubes. This seems like a small point, but would have added a lot to his character, and clarified some glaring questions in the plot.

And make sure that if you do watch Ong Bak 2, watch it with the subtitles. This goes without saying most of the time, but the voices they picked to do the dubbing work on this one are a little too ridiculous.

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