Posts Tagged ‘Tom-Yum-Goong’

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.


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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