Muay Thai Warrior

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Thailand. 2002.

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The head of a Buddha statue is stolen from the poor village of Nong Pradu. Ting (Panom Yeerum aka Tony Jaa), who has secretly trained in the art of Muay Thai, is sent by the villagers to bring it back.

They know that Don (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a former villager, is the culprit and that he has taken the head to Bangkok. In the city Ting easily finds Don but he has already disposed of the head. 

We are shown that Don makes a living as a thief, gambler and associates with drug dealing - he has been thoroughly corrupted by the city. At first he just wants to shrug off Ting but when he cannot get rid of him he tries stealing from him, and then when he discovers that he can fight like a one-man army he tries exploiting him in the gambling dens of Bangkok.

Panom Yeerum in
                    Ong-Bak.After much fighting, chasing and action Ting meets with the Mr Big of crime in the city. He looks like he should be in a James Bond movie, as like most Bond villains he has several physical disabilities that emphasis his underlying evil and symbolically ‘disabled’ brain. For a start he is wheelchair bound and as icing on the cake he needs an electronic vocaliser to speak with. He has a penchant for collecting ancient and valuable treasures, and like any self-respecting Bond villain he has do everything on a grand and eccentric level. He hides all his stolen treasures in a net submerged in the Choa Phraya river; not the best place for preserving your or other people’s valuables. Towards the end of the film there is a set-piece in a huge cave where his men are busy drilling off the head of a huge Buddha statue. I’m sure Freud would have many erudite things to say about such  an interest in Buddha heads, but on a more practical level wouldn’t this desecration ruin the value of the head? Since the head is about the size of a living room it would be of decorative value as a garden ornament to impress the neighbours but it might also be spotted by the most short-sighted policemen. But then what do I know about the criminal mind except that in this case the villain is literally and metaphorically ‘heading’ for trouble.

Ong-Bak action.Another thing regarding the villain is that he starts shouting in the cave when the Buddha’s head is about to roll into action. So are we led to believe that he did not need to speak like Stephen Hawkins after all?

It might all seem like a comic-strip action movie, but there is a sub-plot where a young woman over-doses on drugs, which indicates the ‘real’ evils of the city. In contrast, the unsophisticated “country bumpkin” Ting, and his rural village are shown to be spiritually and morally rich. Indeed, to emphasis this point when Ting is offered the winnings from one of his fights he rejects it. Despite all the obstacles put in his way Ting stays focussed purely on his mission to get back the Buddha’s head.

The storyline is simple to the point where you feel like shouting at the screen “give him back the head”, but this would mean losing face which would not be acceptable at any cost to the film‘s characters. When I viewed it at the 5th Bangkok International Film Festival one French critic shook his head afterwards and said this was a very “bad film”. I accept it’s not an art movie, but I think the consensus opinion was that it is a very exciting action movie. The set-pieces are excellently staged, especially the fight sequences and the extended Tuk Tuk chase, and it moves at a fast clip. 

Nigel Watson

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