Film & DVD Review
A small village in the countryside of Thailand contains the head of Ong-Bak, their statue of the Buddha. All their hopes and beliefs rest entirely on their Buddha, but when it is stolen the inhabitants fear for the worst. A young man, Boonting, accepts the task of going to the capital with the aim of bringing back the head of Buddha. Armed with its only knowledge of the martial art Muay Thai, his quest leads him into more of an adventure than he could ever have imagined.
With Jackie Chan getting older and beginning to use wires and CG, and Jet Li making sub-par US films, there hasn't really been a good martial arts film made in the last several years which didn't have a heavy reliance on wires. All the good ones I can think of come from the classic Hong Kong martial arts film era in the 80's. That was something certain people in Thailand wanted to put right.
Once Ong Bak had been discovered by the Asian film fans, news of it spread like wild fire, and it was hyped beyond belief. Its biggest selling point was that its action was real. There were no wires used, there was no CG enhancement of any of the moves. What you see is what was really done. The fact that the lead, Panom Yeerum, appeared able to do moves which usually required wires for other people made it all the more incredible. After a while a Making Of... vcd was released, and that made the suspense of waiting for the film almost unbearable! Seeing Panom Yeerum pulling of some of the moves was quite simply breath taking. Seeing scenes from the film being filmed, and seeing that there was most definitely a lot of solid contact in the fights, had a lot of proper martial arts fans drooling at the mouth.
After a long wait, the Ong Bak dvd was finally released... without English subs! Aaaarrrggghh! That was annoying. But this film was clearly geared around its action, and any dialogue and plot would clearly be second string by comparison. With that in mind, I'll choose now to give you all the dialogue that is needed to understand the main plot of the film.
Villager: Oh no! Someone's stolen our buddha's head. Someone will have to go and get it back!
Boonting (Panom Yeerum): I'll go.
Various people in fight scenes: Ouch!
There you go. That is the main plot of Ong Bak summarised. Deep, isn't it! There are undoubtedly other sub-plots, but without the subs it is difficult to get a clear picture on them. Things can be deduced, but whether accurately, I don't know. But anyway, sod the plots, Ong Bak is about the action, and nothing else.
It does take a while to get going, I have to admit. It is something like 40 minutes into the film before there is the first fight, and it only lasts one very powerful move. The fight against the long haired Australian guy, is the first of the proper fights, and from there on it is pretty decently paced. There is a very lengthy chase sequence that is very entertaining, with a few fight bits put in, all of which look really cool! All the fights are good to look at, but I do have one significant complaint regarding them, and that is the editting and cutting ruins a lot of the fight moves, reducing the power that comes across. From the Making Of... vcd you see quite a few of the moves being filmed. You see before the move is pulled off, the move being pulled off, and then the aftermath. In other words you see it all, in all its glory. You see the power, and the body being hit collapsing because of the move. In the film, you see the build up to the move being pulled off, then there is a cut, a camera angle change and you see the move being pulled off, then there is another cut and you see the aftermath. The actual move bit sometimes barely lasts a second, and the quick cutting really ruins the power that I know is there. The Australian guy being floored by the head kick, doesn't look as painful any more compared to on the vcd, and the same goes for a lot of the other moves, particularly the knee into the car door. This is a real shame, as the overall impact of the film was ruined on me because of this.
The fights in the cave towards the end are also ruined a little as the lighting is far too dark to really appreciate what is going on. The fights are, nonetheless, still entertaining to watch, as it is good to see some proper martial arts on screen. The majority of the moves pulled off in the film are not Kung fu, like a lot of what I had been accustomed to seeing in films, but are Muay Thai moves. Apparently for the film Panom Yeerum researched into the roots of Muay Thai, and tried to have his moves in the film be very traditional in style. Whether he succeeded or not, I have no clue! There certainly are a lot of different elbow and knee strikes occuring, some of which I'd never seen used before in a film. Panom Yeerum also pulls off quite a few fancy, flash moves. People familiar with "tricking" (a kind of cross between gymnastics and martial arts - go here for a decent site on tricking), will recognise quite a few of the moves he pulls off. I saw 540s, 540 (at least) crescents, master swipes, and several more I don't know the name of... It certainly was good seeing these more flash moves put into a fighting context!
Ong Bak certainly is a breath of fresh air in the martial arts film genre, that is without a doubt, and I can only hope it will pave the way for more proper martial arts films. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what Panom Yeerum comes out with next, as he is a man who clearly has amazing martial arts talent, of which I am ridiculously envious! I don't really care what his acting is like, he may be the worst actor in the world for all I care, the fact that he can screen fight well is more than enough for me. I just hope he doesn't get suckered into going to Hollywood where his talents will undoubtedly be wasted. So my opinion on Ong Bak is that it was definitely good, but not quite as good as the hype suggested. It had the potential to be that good, but for the reasons I've stated, it just didn't make it there for my likings.
Audio & Subtitles
There are three different audio options for Ong Bak, DD5.1, DTS or stereo. Stereo was ignored, and I watched the film once in DTS and once in DD5.1. A direct comparison between the two will not take place, however, as they were watched about 2 weeks apart so no side by side testing was done. From my overall impression though, I don't think there really was much different between the two, as the flaws I remember with one, I also remember for the other. All comments refer to both soundtracks. Volume levels are rather inconsistent in the film. General non-fighting scenes have good volume levels, with sound spreading around the soundstage, and everything sounding clear. In the fight scenes, however, a lot of the impact sounds came across as being rather muted. Compared to everything else going on, they were definitely too quiet, and this also ruined the apparent power of the fighting.
In a couple of scenes there were also volume drop outs, where it went from normal to much quieter for a few seconds, to back to normal again. The reason for this, I don't know. On the whole though, where the sound is good, it is very good, being nice and loud, and utilising the surround speakers to good effect. But where it isn't so good, it is rather poor, being too quiet and having some sound effects that just don't sound right for what is meant to be happening.
Subtitles wise, there are only Thai subs - no english subtitles. I had a quick glimpse at the Thai subs, and from what I gather they only seem to subtitle the speech from the guy who needs that throat box thing to speak.
Ong Bak is a very recent film, and from what I gather had higher production standards than other Thai films, or something like that. With that in mind, and this being a reasonably high profile Thai release (again from what I gather), I expected a pretty decent transfer. Well for the most part, my expectations were reached, and there is indeed a very nice, crisp and sharp looking anamorphic widescreen print. However, there are some down sides. There is a reasonable amount of speckling on screen. Fortunately it appears to come in localised bursts where you get a bit for a short time, then nothing for longer etc. There didn't appear to be much else wrong with most of the print, that I can remember. What I did notice though was that there were definitely some scenes with either didn't get the same level of post production done to the print, or they just simply used crap film. These scenes which I am referring to are pretty much exclusive to the fight scenes. From having a nice crisp, clear and sharp looking scene, the bad scenes are very soft looking, there appears to be a lot of lighting glare and some colour bleeding, and it just generally looks cheap by comparison to the rest of the film. I don't know why it is like this, I can only guess it would be something to do with the conditions required to film the particular fight moves, or something like that.
DVD & Extras
Despite there being no subtitles for the film Ong Bak has all its menus in both Thai and English, so there is no blind and random selecting of menus. That's something to be thankful for at least! Ong Bak also comes with a reasonable selection of extras. The first is Ja Panom (Panom Yeerum)'s fight choreographic. This is a text based (Thai only) extra, with a little animated depiction of the move that I guess is being described. For a non-Thai reader, this is of little value. Next up is Deleted Scenes. This is a 7 minute thing, with an introduction from a person who I guess is the director, talking about the scenes (I think!), and then the deleted scenes are all played out together. The third extra is titled Ong Bak's Easter Eggs. This is a three minute interview with the same guy, and it shows two little messages put into the film directed at famous Western directors - Luc Besson and Steven Spielberg. The fourth extra is an Alternate Ending... that doesn't really need much more explanation!
The fifth extra is a Storyboard Comparison. This starts with an image slideshow of different artists impressions of what a scene was going to look like. It then goes into a side by side comparison of the storyboards and several scenes from the film. Is interesting to see that some of the storyboards appear to have been demo style footage rather than drawings! Basically what those demo type footage are doing is acting out the entire fight scene which is in the film, but without the sets or anything like that. In fact, some of the scenes in the film, were a little dark for my liking, but this demo footage is perfectly clear, and for me makes it look better than it does in the film! It was a really cool extra. Extra #6 is Casting & Audition. 8 minutes of interviews and tapes of the casting and audtions. The penultimate extra is a 3D animatic comparison. This shows some computer mock ups of what a scene was to look like, and then the actual scene, so that you can see how it compared. Lastly there is a Demo Scenes video. This shows pretty much what the storyboards extras showed, but full screen. In other words it is another opportunity to show of Panom Yeerum's amazing ability! All in all, a decent set of extras.
With the hype that was built up for Ong Bak, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the second coming as far as martial arts movies go. Yes it is pretty good, and yes I probably would like it a lot more had there been english subtitles, letting me understand the film a little better. Yes, it is pretty clear what is going on most of the time, but subs would have allowed the smaller sub plots to come to light. Despite the fight scenes not using any wires or CG, and even though they do look pretty good on the whole, it is the editting in places that ruins it. Had I not seen the Making Of... I probably wouldn't appreciate the contact that is going on, and the how real the fights are. This is a shame, as you really don't get martial arts film like this any more. Had the editting in the fights been better, and the sound effects too, I think the film would improve greatly. That being said, it is not a bad martial arts film by any stretch of the imagination, and if you like some good fighting, then there hasn't been anything made in recent years that beats this (for reference CTHD and Hero can't really be compared, as both are wuxia, and not real fighting).
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