Ong Bak (2003)
By: Devon B. on August 22, 2010  | 
Eastern Eye | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Thai DD 5.1 | 104 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Suchao Pongwilai, Wannakit Sirioput
Screenplay: Suphachai Sittiaumponpan
Country: Thailand
External Links
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The martial arts genre became desolate when Hong Kong was no longer producing quality films, but into the void came Ong Bak with its star Tony Jaa, heralded as the next Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. While drawing some clear inspiration from Chan, especially in regards to fight 'n' flight scenes, Jaa is about as far removed from Chan as a martial artist ever could be, so don't expect a lot of laughs.

The story of Ong Bak is simplicity itself. A small village's idol, Ong Bak, has its head stolen and monk-in-training Jaa goes into the city to retrieve it. That's it. There're other elements, like him meeting up with someone from his village who has relocated to the city and trying to get him to change his illicit ways. Unfortunately, Jaa's friend from the village has hooked up with the woman with the second most annoying voice in the world (the most annoying honour goes to a woman from the village that thankfully only has a few lines). Jaa also angers a few underworld figures, which keeps the "plot" going, but all that really matters is that Jaa gets in fights. Lots of them.

Ong Bak is completely unoriginal and uncreative in everything but the action sequences, but this was the first Thai movie to showcase classical Muay Thai fighting, and at the time most of the world had seen nothing like it. Muay Thai, which I think translates as "Fractured Elbow," is a style of fighting that focuses on the complete and immediate obliteration of the opponent. Elbows and knees are used with amazing force, and it seems like there couldn't have been a stunt man left on the set that hadn't broken something by the end of the shoot. Jaa used no wires and no CG compositing for his feats, thrilling those of us that were drawn to martial arts movies in the first place to see what these amazing performers were capable of, not who could be hoisted the highest on a string. I'm not saying I always hate Wuxia, but when Jaa does the oft-used Wuxia trick of running over the top of his enemies' heads he does it WITHOUT the wire. Jaa jumps, flips, and pummels with the best of them, and his brutal fighting style is intense. Not that the whole success is Jaa's alone; there is some fantastic, inventive choreography going on, and the rest of the stunt team is top notch, with one fight being so wild it'd be a spoiler to even begin to describe it. The fights are vicious, completely lacking the elegance of a kung fu battle, and there're moments, like the saw blade blocking, that will leave even the most jaded viewer wincing.

But lest you think Ong Bak is perfect, let me remind you that everything not action related is not so much kick ass as just plain old, smelly ass. The story is told with all the skill of someone who's never heard a story before. Sledgehammer background exposition to set up our simple scenario is wedged in with the subtlety of one of Jaa's kneedrops, and one of the script's messages seems to be that traditional drugs are okay but new chemically engineered ones are bad. Most of the acting is over the top, and while it's good that the fights lack subtlety, some nuance might've been good in the rest of the movie. The director, Prachya Pinkaew, displays no subtlety in his penchant for slow mo, multi-angled repeats of many of Jaa's moves. This calmed down in the follow up film, Tom Yum Goong, so clearly Pinkaew just got caught up in how awesome Jaa is, but in this day of the home video the viewer can just rewind and re-watch alone, so the replays are unnecessary. Sometimes the action flow is completely ruined, which is a real shame, but it doesn't take long for Jaa to get you back in the moment.

Jaa is the first person since the fall of Peking Opera to have the drive, dedication and ability to develop the impressive skills to rival martial arts stars of old. His agility nearly matches Yuen Biao's at his prime, but Jaa has a presence all his own when it comes to the fights. He's still takin' names while he's ON FIRE, and it's this sort of devil may care attitude for safety that makes Ong Bak such addictive viewing.

The Eastern Eye DVD contains two versions of the film. The first is the uncut Thai version, and I believe Eastern Eye are still the only company that have released this version intact for an English speaking market. The second is the Luc Besson re-edit that was the theatrical version for much of the world. However, the Frenchman's version is supposed to be missing two limb breaks near the end of the film, but they are included on this DVD, so the shots must've been re-inserted by Eastern Eye. What this means is the main thing you're missing in the theatrical edition is a pointless subplot about one of the character's family, and in a movie with such a simple plot, it'd might've been better to remove even more of the "story." The French version has a few other alterations, but I'll cover that in the audio section.

There're a few Easter eggs in the film to keep an eye out for. In the foot chase scene, when Ting leaps off the table, on a wall behind him is written, "Hi Spielberg Let's do it together". I assume they mean make a movie, not have sex. The second egg is of the same fashion. In the tuk tuk chase, when Ting launches a tuk tuk off the elevated road, on the support pole are the words, "Hi Luc Besson We are waiting for you". Luc Besson did team up with them for the French cut, so they got their wish.
Ong Bak is a Thai movie, so don't expect the level of quality you'd get from, say, Hong Kong. When I saw this disc on a big screen, it didn't look so hot, but on a smaller screen it's not too bad. There's some grain, especially in the cave sequences, and some spots, but any flaws in this print are to do with the source and not the transfer.
Here is where Eastern Eye have done the purists a service and left the original Thai audio. The UK edition has a 5.1 DTS track, but has the score redone, and the original US release is the French version, though a later US edition apparently has the bone breaks re-inserted. Regardless, if you want see the full length, original soundtracked movie, and English is your first language, Eastern Eye is the only way to go. Both versions on the Eastern Eye disc are in Thai 5.1. The French track has a different score, which is occasionally distracting, especially in the tuk tuk chase. The track has beefed up sound effects as well. I prefer the uncut version because the score is less overwhelming, but most of the time the two tracks are comparable and entirely serviceable. There're a few typos in the subs in either version.
Extra Features
On a second disc there're heaps of extras. Firstly there's a roughly 50 minute doco on Muay Thai, which is a handy little insight into the martial art and the culture that surrounds it. There's a seven minute interview with Jaa, where he details the extensive work done for the film; a 14 minute one with Pinkaew; a 30 second (!) interview with the main supporting actor; and a 40 second (at least its 10 more) with the fight choreographer, Panna Ritikrai. A making of runs about 48 minutes, and is absolutely essential viewing to see the action scenes being put together. Three separate behind the scenes featurettes are also included, totalling about six minutes in length all together. Tony Jaa's fight demos are also a highlight, made up of ads, film premieres, and rehearsal footage. A text break down of the eight Muay Thai movements gives some more background on the style. There's also a music video for the song that plays in the end credits of the French version; poster, stills and storyboard galleries; trailers; and trailers for other Eastern Eye titles. UK fans got a commentary by Asian action cinema expert Bey Logan, but given Eastern Eye and Hong Kong Legends / Premier Asia (the label Bey worked for at the time) were rivals in Australia, it's unlikely Eastern Eye could've licensed the track.

There're also a few eggs, all of which are on disc two, and most have introductions by Pinkaew.

Press right on "Artwork Galleries" in the "Trailers and Bonus Material" section to highlight a fist. Hit enter to see an animatic of the tuk tuk chase.

In the same section, press left on "Back to Extras Main Menu" to highlight a second fist. Press enter to see seven minutes of deleted scenes.

In the "Tony Jaa – Fight Demonstrations" section, press right on "The 8 Muay Thai Movements" to highlight a fist. Press enter to see the alternate, happy ending.

In the "Artwork Galleries" section, press right on "Storyboards Gallery" to highlight a fist. Press enter to see storyboard comparisons of the tuk tuk scene, plus demo scene comparisons to the final film.

The final egg is the most important, but I can only get it to work by going to title 20. So, go to title 20 to see Jaa's promo video that was made to try to get Pinkaew interested in collaborating. This is an excellent feature because some of his moves are better represented here than in the film itself.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Everything about this movie is either stupid or so simple an intellectually challenged five year old could've come up with it. Everything except the fights. The fights are unique and are so good that, despite sometimes poor presentation due to director interference, they make this an absolute classic of the martial arts genre. Coupled with a flawless DVD presentation, Eastern Eye has unleashed Jaa on us all in a manner that gives the star the respect he deserves.

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