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Posts Tagged ‘Prachya Pinkaew’

Well, here’s the perfect pre-Christmas treat, a film veritably dripping with cosiness, warmth, compassion, and good humour. Or one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, anyway, based on the track records of many of the principals involved. The director is Prachya Pinkaew, and two of the lead performers are Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin. The film is Tom Yum Goong 2 – aka Warrior King 2 and The Protector 2, but in line with the treatment hereabouts of the film it’s following up, I shall be referring to it as Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant. I was expecting great things from this movie – well, not so much great things as howling rampant insanity – and I’m pleased to say that I was not really disappointed.

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The story opens with a degree of peculiar backstory concerning the fictitious Republic of Katana and a degree of structural fluff, but soon settles down to show us Tony Jaa enjoying his life in rural Thailand, where he passes his time looking after his beloved elephant and teaching the local children insanely violent martial arts.

However, all this changes when some gangsters turn up and attempt to force Tony to part with his pachyderm. Tony, naturally, says no, but all that happens is that the gangsters come back and steal the elephant as soon as he pops out for a bit. This makes our hero very cross indeed and he goes round to the chief gangster’s house to make his feelings clear in time-honoured bone-crunching style, but – much to his surprise – the crook has already been beaten to death by someone else. However, he is discovered with the corpse by the ex-villain’s doting martial arts fiend nieces, Ping Ping and Sue Sue (Yanin and Theerada Kittisiriprasert), whose response does not suggest they are pacifists.

…and at that point you may as well forget about anything remotely resembling logic, a coherent plot, or indeed reality as we know it, as Tony and Jeeja plummet into a world where… well, there’s a lot of fisticuffs, but that’s about all I’m certain of. Also returning from the first film is Petchtai Wongkamlao as Tony’s hapless mate Sarge, who is at least issued some pithy dialogue critiquing the premise of the proceedings: ‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost your elephant again! Is this an elephant or a kitten? How can you keep losing him?’ Sensible questions one and all.

Sarge, whom viewers of the first film may recall spends his days as the most preposterous cop in Sydney, is in town to help with a peace conference connected to the Republic of Katana, which dark forces are trying to interfere with. Charged with bringing about this act of premeditated beastliness is gangster LC (the noted rapperist RZA), who also runs some sort of fight circuit where the participants have numbers rather than names. It is LC and his top man Fighter Number 2 (Marrese Crump – I tell you, the names in this film…) who have ensnared Tony and his elephant in their web of bafflement, though whether this is because LC wants Tony to be Fighter Number 1, or just needs the elephant for his evil scheme (suffice to say the climax includes the dialogue ‘There’s a bomb in that elephant!’), or perhaps both, is unclear – one gets the impression they wrote the script as they were going along.

As you may have gathered, Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant is completely nuts, although perhaps not as flamboyantly and soaringly so as the first one, or indeed Chocolate (Pinkaew’s previous film with Jeeja Yanin) – it doesn’t include any of the really weird stuff like dream sequences about elephants or whip-wielding transgender bad guys, it’s just very, very comic booky, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some absurdly extravagant action sequences – at one point Tony finds himself pursued by a literal army of people on motor scooters, while at another there’s a scrap between Tony and a bunch of goons, all of whose feet are on fire – but that’s really all the film has.

And, while the movie doesn’t have the most inspired or varied fight sequences – there’s nothing as jawdropping as the five minute travelling shot from Tom Yum Goong – they are solid stuff. Tony spends most of the film fighting Crump, if we’re honest, but the two kick lumps out of each other with aplomb. The real shame, if you ask me, is that we never really get the sequence where Tony and Jeeja face off against one another at length. To be honest, Jeeja Yanin’s contribution to the film feels a little bit dispensable – she just rattles about the edges of the plot not doing very much. Pinkaew introduces the character of a female fighter called Number 20 (Rhatha Phongam), and you naturally assume that come the climax she will be fighting Jeeja while Tony sorts out RZA. But no. In the end this just feels like a regular Tony Jaa movie, albeit one with an extended cameo by Jeeja Yanin, rather than a proper team-up of the duo.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tom Yum Goong and Chocolate are both such boldly nutty films that it would have been very difficult for this film, whatever you want to call it, to push this particular envelope any further. By conventional standards this is not a good thriller or action movie. But as a headbanging piece of martial arts nonsense it fits the bill admirably, even if it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

 

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There aren’t many films in which the discovery of a severed and putrescent human toe in a tube of Smarties constitutes a significant plot development, but then there have been regrettably few films from the Thai director Prachya Pinkaew. I first discovered the great man’s work through the 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong, distinguished by its combination of full-on sentimentality, bone-crunching martial arts violence, and bizarre peripheral plot details. A beautiful mutant of a film, I thought, but unlikely to prosper as the start of a new lineage. Then I saw Pinkaew’s follow-up, from 2008: Chocolate. This makes Tom-Yum-Goong look very humdrum indeed.

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The film opens in a style bordering on the impressionistic as it recounts the first flowering of love between two beautiful young people, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and Zin (Ammara Siripong). Their romance is somewhat impeded by the fact that they work for opposing criminal gangs – Masashi is in the Yakuza, she is in whatever the Thai equivalent is. Their affair reaches a bittersweet conclusion when Zin insists that Masashi clear off back to Japan for his own safety. She herself gives up her affluent gangster lifestyle and retires to the Thai equivalent of suburbia to raise the daughter Masashi has inadvertantly left her with. This itself would be the basis for an interesting drama, but Pinkaew and his writers have other things in mind.

Unfortunately, Zin’s daughter is born with autism and needs a lot of looking after. Zin’s life in this regard is not made easier when an attempt to contact Masashi results in her former employer (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) popping round and chopping off one of her toes (he has the foresight to retain the digit for the purposes of the coming plot). However, as is well-known, when a character in a movie is autistic, it is extremely likely to be the kind of autism which also provides them with superhuman faculties in some other respect. And so it proves here, for Zin’s daughter Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) turns out to have uncanny reflexes and the ability to copy any movement she sees – which is fortuitous, seeing as their flat overlooks the local Muay Thai school’s yard.

You may be thinking that Zin has had a hard life so far. But things get even worse when she develops non-specified movie cancer and requires a lot of expensive medicine. The act that Zen has been performing with her friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee, basically playing a junior version of the Petchtai Wongkamlao character from Tony Jaa movies), where she catches things the audience throws at her, is not making enough, and things look bleak. But then Moom discovers a book detailing outstanding debts owed to Zin from her days as a top gangster. All he and Zen have to do is go round to all these minor gangland figures and persuade them to cough up the money for Zin’s drugs. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and there’s no chance at all that Zen could be called upon to display her astoundingly precocious martial arts skills…

When I first heard about ‘the autistic teenage girl debt collector martial arts movie’ I have to admit my first response was ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’ And part of me still wonders if, perhaps, Chocolate isn’t on some level an extraordinary spoof not just of the genre but of foreign attitudes towards Thailand. Zen picks up some of her chop-socky wizardry from watching movies on TV, and they are, of course, other films Pinkaew has directed – either this is a wink to the audience or a cost-cutting measure. Perhaps making the protagonist full-on autistic is a sly comment on the depth of characterisation usually to be found in the heroes of martial arts films. And this is the second film from this director (following Tom-Yum-Goong) to feature an evil ladyboy: in fact, at one point a gang of gun-toting evil trannies turn up in the service of the bad guy. I’d’ve said that the automatic association of ladyboys with Thailand was nothing more than gross cultural stereotyping, but either I was wrong, or Pinkaew is playing games with the way his country is perceived. I honestly don’t know.

If Chocolate is on some level a spoof, it is a mightily deadpan one, opening with an apparently-heartfelt dedication to the special children who inspired it and the transcendent power of human movement – I’m not quite sure what gets transcended when you kick someone repeatedly in the head and then throw them off the roof of a building, but no matter. Certainly, Zen’s autism is played very straight – or at least as straight as possible, given the kind of movie this is – and there’s something very, and probably intentionally, disturbing about the moments where she reverts from being an unstoppable dispenser of brutality and becomes an awkward, inarticulate figure demanding ‘Money for Mummy’. No punches are being pulled in either sense.

Yanin is a revelation in this movie, both as an actress and a martial arts performer. Though apparently in her mid- twenties when the film was made, she can easily pass for a girl a decade younger, which makes the lengthy sequences in which she beats the living daylights out of gangs of men much older and bigger than her even more startling. Once the debt-collection plotline got going properly, I found myself in two minds – on the one hand this is a brilliant plot device for a martial arts film, allowing lots of fight scenes without the need for too much exposition, but on the other the film seemed to be squandering this potential ever so slightly – the first three big set pieces all involve Zen wandering into somewhere vaguely industrial (a factory, a warehouse, an abattoir) and having to fend off all the employees in the place: basically, just gang fights. But good gang fights – inventive and funny, with Yanin fast and fluid and surprisingly plausible. Nevertheless, I need not have worried, for as the climax arrives the film becomes much more ambitious.

Not content with a two-on-one all-girl fight on a rooftop and a mass battle with katana, Pinkaew throws in one of the weirdest, most remarkable expert fights I’ve ever seen, as it is revealed that the villain’s own household conceals another teenage combat prodigy. The film itself doesn’t quite make clear what’s going on with the lad in question, but either he is also autistic or – and I think this may in fact be the case – he is epileptic. Yes, taste barriers are shattered like the collarbones of stuntmen as the autistic girl and the epileptic boy engage in ferocious, acrobatic hand-to-hand combat. It is the jaw-droppy-open moment to crown all jaw-droppy-open moments and no mistake. Even here the film isn’t quite finished, concluding with an exuberantly original final battle up and down the side of a four storey building.

I suppose it is possible that Chocolate is the phenomenally bad taste spoof that I’ve been suggesting – but the earnestness of the thing, together with the apparent seriousness of the performances and the script, really make me doubt it: in between the fight scenes, the stuff about Zen and her mum and her mum’s illness seems heartfelt and is actually quite moving, as if a serious social drama has had some tae kwondo action spliced in just to draw the crowds. Any way you cut it, this is probably one of the weirdest martial arts films ever made (and I’m saying that as a connoisseur of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) – but it’s also an extremely accomplished and highly enjoyable one. I am excited to learn that 2013 promises the release of Tom-Yum-Goong 2, in which Pinkaew and Yanin will team up with Tony Jaa. I literally cannot imagine just what realms of strangeness that film will doubtless take us to, but I am eager to find out.

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One of the issues you get into as soon as you start offering your opinion about films in any kind of measured and thoughtful way (quiet at the back) is that of what your criteria are – and, moreover, whether you use the same ones all the time. Should you base your judgement on a low-budget British film on the same factors as that on a massive international blockbuster? The films are showing in the same theatres, runs one argument, and it’s the same ticket price for both – so the same standards should apply.

Well, hmmm. I’m not convinced, particularly when it comes to genre movies – there’s a set of tropes and expectations involved here which is not consistent. Terrible acting and a ludicrous excuse for a plot would be unforgivable in anything attempting to be a serious drama, but they are much less of an issue – and even perhaps to be expected in some of the more specialised types of film. (And, no, I’m not necessarily talking about porno.)

Of course, if you can meet all the genre requirements and include an interesting story and decent performances and direction, that’s great – even qualified failure can still result in a notable movie. I was thinking about all of these things while watching Prachya Pinkaew’s 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong. This is a movie from Thailand which has emerged in international territories under a variety of different titles: The Protector, Ong-Bak 2, Warrior King, Thai Dragon, Revenge of the Warrior, and so on. Personally, I always think of it as Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant, as this is what the plot to a large degree is about.

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Tony Jaa plays a fine young upstanding Thai fellow from a long line of warriors and elephant-lovers. He and his dad have an elephant which they are terribly fond of, and when the elephant has a baby their joy is very nearly unconfined. Protracted, bucolic, and rather sentimental scenes of elephant-related Thai life make up the first part of the film. However, when they enter their senior pachyderm in the Royal Elephant Display, traumatic events result. Chinese gangsters kidnap both Tony’s elephants and put a bullet in his dad (whether his dad dies or not depends on which version of the film you are watching) – it’s a bit unclear which upsets Tony Jaa more, but the overall upshot is that he is as cross as two sticks.

After administering the first of several spectacular collective beatings to the gangsters when he catches up with them, and then participating in a slightly sub-James Bond-ish boat chase, Tony heads off to Sydney, Australia, which is where his beloved elephants have been sent.

But there is trouble brewing in Sydney. On one level this is fairly typical martial arts movie stuff, involving police corruption and gangland internal politics, where the women are presented in almost wholly passive and sexualised terms, and all normal logic seems to have been suspended (along with most of the standard laws of physics). But in other terms it is rather different, and this is what makes Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant such a distinctively weird movie to watch. Partly because it is, on some levels, quite ludicrously primitive – some of the TV newsreaders working in Sydney very obviously don’t speak English as their first language, and the same can be said of Tony’s regular sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao, who in this film plays a rather preposterous sergeant in the Sydney PD.

In other areas it is just silly – some of this is just down to the genre rules of a martial arts film, as in the sequence where Tony is called upon to fight a capoeira expert, a wushu swordsman and a giant wrestler in a temple which somehow manages to be both flooded and on fire at the same time – the three bad guys form an orderly queue to take Tony on one at a time, which is gallant of them, and one can’t help but picture the other two hanging around outside waiting for their go while Tony sorts out the first one.  Even so, the film seems to be stretching these rules to the limit – the first really major action sequence sees Tony wandering into a drug deal, at which point the bad guy on the scene summons the dreaded in-line skaters of doom and BMX bikers of the apocalypse to sort him out. Er, what?

But mostly this film just comes across as incredibly offbeat. A repeated moment has Tony Jaa appearing in all sorts of unlikely settings, looking extremely angry, and yelling ‘Where are my elephants?’ (At one point you get to see a gang of wrestlers throw a baby elephant through a plate-glass window, which doesn’t even happen in Jason Statham movies.) Towards the end of the movie Tony Jaa is being hunted by the cops, but is able to walk around the city in broad daylight in the company of said juvenile pachyderm without anyone seeming to notice it. Part of the plot revolves around a secret Thai restaurant where people pay top dollar to eat endangered species. The main villain is a psychotic whip-cracking ladyboy gangster (played by Xing Jin). I mean, what? What?!?

Oh well – you don’t really watch this kind of film for the plot anyway (the one here bears a vague similarity to some parts of Kiss of the Dragon), but it’s nice that they have tried to give it its own very weird identity and flavour. What you’re really here for is to see Tony Jaa in full-on knees-in-the-face action, and the film does not disappoint – the fight sequences take a while to arrive, but when they do they are lengthy and frequent. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the biggest fan of Muay Thai as a movie martial art – whenever Tony Jaa ties someone’s arm or leg in a knot, it’s accompanied by a damp crackling noise that really drives home the fact that he’s doing severe physical damage to someone. At least with Jet Li or Mr Statham kicking someone in the head you can imagine them just waking up with a bit of a headache and a resolution to live a better life, whereas anyone who gets on the wrong side of Tony is clearly looking at surgery and a long stint in rehab.

But the movie does all the standards – mob fights, expert fights, boss fights – and does them rather well. Johnny Tri Nguyen, Jon Foo and Lateef Crowder all have featured spots as guest bad guys and their fights are fun and well-choreographed. That said, at a couple of points the fights are distinctive not for the actual choreography but the direction.

The direction of this movie is quite a bit better than the script probably deserves – it’s certainly highly ambitious. The slightly-annoying genre staple of a big stunt being replayed several times from different angles barely features, while in a couple of places Pinkaew goes for insanely long takes during the fight sequences – at one point Tony Jaa runs amok through four or five floors of a building, proceeding to beat up practically every man-jack in the joint, and it appears to take place in a single shot lasting about five minutes (I suspect they may have cheated, of course). Elsewhere he isn’t afraid to go for wacky dream sequences or strange impressionistic effects, although when called upon to do the boat chase, for example, he gets a bit carried away.

In the end it all boils down to a very fit and dangerous young man taking off his shirt and beating dozens of people up, but because it’s so interestingly directed, and the stuff draped over the basic requirements of the plot is so bizarre, Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant comes across as a bit of a departure for the genre. I don’t think it will convert anyone to either martial arts films in general or Tony Jaa in particular, but it’s strangely enjoyable, and enjoyably strange.

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