Interview with ONG-BAK director PRACHYA PINKAEW
Two kinds of punters are going to emerge from watching Ong-Bak in a state of shellshock: the white-faced World Movie crowd, for whom no amount of subtitles will erase the mountain of broken bodies, and the House Of Flying Daggers crew who prefer their martial arts films “wistful” and “arty”.
Make no mistake, punters. Ong-Bak is bone-snapping, skull-splitting, popcorn-spitting UBER-CARNAGE. Listening to the pounding synth score and watching the relentless violence open up on screen like flowers of flesh and blood, I was reminded of the films I grew up on. Glorious R-rated Chuck Norris bloodbaths like Force Of One and Silent Rage, or the Filipino chop-sockey gorefest Naked Fist from Cirio H. Santiago. Long before the House of Flying Wires, these films were about grown men beating the living shaizer from each other in gratuitous close-up. I almost wept tears for my lost misspent youth.
You get the impression Ong-Bak would have remained in a Phuket fleapit if it weren’t for Luc Besson. A man of infinite taste and refinement (see his own films Subway and the heavily Hong Kong influenced Leon: The Professional), Besson caught Ong-Bak at Cannes and forked out the francs then and there for the international rights. He trimmed the film by three minutes and added the very Eighties and VERY Euro electro-score, and before you could say Sacre Bleu, a minor cult masterpiece was launched to the world.
On the phone from Bangkok, I spoke to Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew and with the help of a translator (who had luckily seen the film) I congratulated him on the international success of his film. Five minutes later his reply came back. At least give me full marks for persevering.
I asked Prachya which films inspired him as a child to become a filmmaker. “Normally I like Spielberg’s films, but in particular with Ong-Bak I was inspired by Hong Kong films like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan movies.” I noticed in one scene you scrawled a hello to Spielberg on the wall - has he called you yet? (Prachya laughs) “I haven’t been contacted by him yet, so he might not have seen the film.”
A guiding light for Prachya was even closer to home. Phanna Rithikrai, regarded as the Thai Bruce Lee from his local kung fu hit Born To Fight, jumped on board as Ong-Bak’s producer. “We used the same team as Born To Fight for Ong-Bak. Mr Rithikrai is a good friend of mine and he has done so many films, and I know his talent in this area. With Ong-Bak, it is a very low budget film, and not many people have been impressed with it in Thailand.” Which is hard to understand - maybe Thai audiences would rather go to a kick-boxing fight than watch it on the big screen.
The film is essentially four or five long and incredibly complex action setpieces, linked with a hokey premise of a young Muy Thai initiate (Tony Jaa) heading to Bangkok from the countryside to recover his village’s stone Buddha head from the city’s most violent gangster. Ong-Bak took three years to prepare, so Prachya used the time wisely and would videotape each action scene, adjusting the multiple camera setups and fine tuning the storyboards so that the actual filming could maximize its shots. An early scene is a breathtaking ten minute chase through a busy market alleyway, and has Tony (in a brazed attempt to out-Chan Jackie Chan) using every possible piece of cookware as a weapon, before skidding underneath a moving car and jumping six feet in the air to walk over the regulation thugs.
Even more jaw-droppable is the spectacular chase scene down a busy highway involving a dozen or so motorized three-wheel scooters (or “tuk-tuks”). “It took a longer time than usual,” Prachya says. “That particular scene took more than ten days.” It reminds me of the hyper-action scenes from the Luc Besson-produced hit Taxi (2000). Would that have possibly influenced Besson to champion Ong-Bak? “I have seen that film,” says Prachya diplomatically. “Luc is a very good producer of action films, and he has a very good understanding of martial arts.”
The film gradually loses its chuckle factor and becomes more intense as it hurtles towards the grim and suitably blood-soaked finale. Was that deliberate? “Yes, that thought has been intentionally set up. Because we have good humour in our culture, and you can see the sidekick who plays with Tony (Petchtai Wongkamlao), he’s a first class comedian in Thailand. But I wanted to show the techniques of Thai boxing. So that’s why the movie becomes intense later on.”
Just to prove there’s no wires, the same shot is repeated from two other angles in ultra-slow-mo. “We used the old technique from Hong Kong movies,” Prachya confesses. “Secondly we liked to show how genuine the actions of Tony Jaa were who played that role.” It’s true that Tony Jaa might not have the on-screen charisma of Jackie Chan or current Asian superstar Stephen Chow - at this stage in his career he’s still a mass of tics and his dialogue scenes have an awkward school musical feel. But when the shirt’s off, there’s no mistaking his command of the human body as a killing machine. It’s the same with Prachya’s direction. The plot and character development are clumsy, but when you get to the bare meat of the action, and thankfully that’s MOST of the film’s screen time, Prachya’s quite considerable talents as a genre filmmaker emerge and the film goes into hyperdrive.
As a counterpoint to the action there are some beautiful cinematic moments, such as an underwater scene where Tony finds scores of stone Buddha heads in lobster nets. “For the Thai audience it was quite unexpected. They have been well aware of the illegal selling of Buddha heads but they didn’t have the idea that it was that extreme. However that scene was from the imagination of the producer.” The film’s opening sequence shows a mastery of montage, in which the young men of the village scramble up a tree like spider monkeys, throwing each other off branches onto the hard ground (no effects here!) to claim the prize: a single ribbon. “It was the old Thai game from the rural area of Thailand,” notes Prachya. “Usually they used a tree next to the river bank, so anyone who fell would fall in the water!”
Prachya spent last November in Sydney with Tony shooting a more comic follow-up to Ong-Bak. Tony Jaa may yet become an international star; already Luc Besson is in deep discussion, as is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino? “There hasn’t been a clear idea about that, but there is the idea that they might be working together in the future.” If Quentin manages to single-handedly revive the Shaw Brothers empire, be sure that Tony Jaa will be there to drop-kick someone’s ass into oblivion.
PRACHYA PINKAEW interview uncut
Congratulations on the international success of your film.
Thank you very much.
I was very impressed with the scene where Tony sees a whole series of Buddha heads in lobster nets underwater. Did that strike a chord with Thai audiences?
For the Thai audience it was quite unexpected. They have been well aware of the illegal selling of Buddha heads but they didn’t have the idea that it was that extreme. However that scene was from the imagination of the producer.
How long did the complicated fight scenes take to film - eg the tuk tuk chase?
It took a longer time than usual. That particular scene took more than ten days.
I liked the technique of shooting a scene from three different angles and slowing down the footage - it’s very much like classic 70s kung fu movies.
First of all we used the old technique from Hong Kong movies - secondly we liked to show how genuine the actions of Tony Jaa who played that role.
I thought the first scene in the tree was quite beautiful, what inspired that scene?
It was the old Thai game from the rural area of Thailand - usually they used a tree next to the river bank, so anyone who fell would fall in the water.
What kind of films inspired you as a child to become a filmmaker?
Normally I like Spielberg’s films, but in particular with Ong-Bak I was inspired by Hong Kong films like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan movies.
I noticed in one scene who say hello to Spielberg - has he called you yet?
(laughs) I haven’t been contacted by him yet, so he might not have seen the film.
I believe you were particularly influenced by Phanna Rithikrai (the Thai Bruce Lee) and his film Born To Fight.
This film Born To Fight, we used the same team for Ong-Bak. Mr Rithikrai is a good friend of mine and he has done so many films, and I know his talent in this area. With Ong-Bak, it is a very low budget film, and not many people have been impressed with it in Thailand. Also the scene wasn’t filmed in or around Bangkok - it was shot in the provincial areas.
How did Luc Besson find out about the film?
Luc saw the film at Cannes and he liked it very much. He bought the movie and promoted it in Europe and America.
Did Luc change the film at all?
Yes, he did cut some scenes, about three minutes, and also changed the soundtrack.
Have you seen the Luc Besson-produced film Taxi? Did that have any influence on the tuk-tuk scene?
I have seen that film. Luc is a very good producer of action films, and he has a very good understanding of martial arts.
I understand many of the action scenes are videotaped to work out camera angles etc - how long would you videotape a scene like the Circle of Death sequence?
It took a long time, and in the preparation for the film we had several problems, and it took us three years to start to shoot the scene. So we used those three years to adjust and review...
In one scene you see blood spraying from the top of someone’s head when Tony’s elbow connects with the top of someone’s skull. Was that real?
(laughs) It wasn’t real, it was a CG technique.
I noticed you’re making a film with Tony in Australia?
Yes, it took about one month in November. We shot in Sydney.
Has there been any interest for Tony to work in an overseas production?
There are many producers and directors that have contacted us to work with Tony. For example Quentin Tarantino, and a number of agencies. Including Luc.
Did Quentin say what he had in mind for Tony?
There hasn’t been a clear idea about that, but there is the idea that they might be working together in the future.
The market scene - the camera setups are quite complicated, did you carefully storyboard the sequence or shoot with a number of cameras so you could cut between shots?
We used both techniques.
The film was quite humerous at first, and then the humour disappears and the film becomes much more intense. Was that deliberate?
Yes, that thought has been intentionally set up. Because in the Thai character we have good humour in our culture, and you can see the sidekick who plays with Tony, he’s a first class comedian in Thailand. But I wanted to show the techniques of Thai boxing. So that’s why the movie becomes intense later on.
The guy who plays the Big Bear sounds very Australian - is he one of our home-grown talent?
I wasn’t sure whether he was Australian or not. He happened to be traveling through Asia at the time. But in my next film I know which ones are Australian and which ones aren’t.
I hope you realize all Aussies are like the Big Bear.
I’m well aware of that. When I went to work in Sydney everyone was nice and lovely. (???)
Do you plan on shooting in Australia again?
Yes, if possible. I have made a number of new friends, particularly those in the production team.
Thank you for the interview, and I really enjoyed your film.
Thank you very much.