“Ong Bak” hit the screens in 2003 and found huge success with global audiences, famed for its impressive stunt work and bone-crunching martial arts action. Set several hundred years earlier, the prequel, “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” delivers similarly devastating, gritty action and incredible choreography. The action combined with the high-concept narrative, setting and rapid pace as well as its moody, dark over tone make it bizarrely brilliant.
Tony Jaa directs the film and utilises it as a vehicle to display his fighting skills, offering a smorgasbord of martial arts styles, techniques and disciplines on the screen. The story follows an orphaned boy in feudal Siam (now Thailand) on his journey to becoming a martial arts’ master (Jaa), in order to avenge the death of his family at the hands of a deadly assassin.
Jaa is excellent as Tien,the film’s main character. The ever-reliable action star has just as much ferocity and vigour as the first film. He commands the screen and is easily followable in terms of the viewer’s access to the narrative and action. Jaa displays many talents throughout, including traditional Thai dance called Khon which is elegantly executed by the star as proof of his versatility and talent.
Sorapong Chatree is excellent as Chernang, the steely and capable leader of the thief gang, whose narrative becomes embroiled with Tien’s and becomes his master. His character specialises in Thai Sword, which he teaches to Tien. The film’s more dramatic and emotional scenes often feature Chatree, as he is a talented and experienced actor.
Many of the other characters do not feature so heavily in the main narrative and the drama lies mainly with Jaa and Chatree. Most other actors play smaller parts or in action sequences. There is an honourable smaller part for Mum Jokmok, the comedic co-star of the original Ong-Bak. Sarunyu Wongkrachang plays Lord Rajasena who is Tien’s sworn enemy.
The story follows Tien, son of local nobility whose parents are tragically taken away from him when he is young. After being sent to study with a master from another village, Tien is made to flee for his safety but is captured and taken to a slave auction.
After being rescued, he is trained as a deadly martial artist and secretly plots to take his revenge on whomever killed his family. Throughout, Tien is plagued by the dark, vicious memories from his tragic past and must overcome many personal obstacles on his journey.
The plot culminates in an epically impressive fight scene, which involves Tien fighting multiple enemies in sequence, pushing his skills, body and mind to their outermost limits.
The plot, as well as being entertaining and historical in essence, mainly serves as a vehicle to display the insane and phenomenal action which the film focuses on. The plot is not irrelevant, but is unashamedly secondary to the action.
The film is absolutely stacked to the rafters with action with one scene flowing into the next with blistering pace, creating a kinetic, roller coaster style experience which is exactly what fight, combat and stunt fans worldwide really want to see.
The training montage is an excellent action set piece and one of the most diverse I have seen in a martial arts film where the training montage is a key ingredient. The thief king introduces Tien to the village, a vibrant place with a joyful yet deadly vibe. The disciplines being trained here are arts such as Jiu-Jitsu, Kung-fu, Muay Thai, magic tricks and various types of weapon arts including Thai Sword taught Tien by the king himself. The section ends with a series of tests. Pitched against stylists of varying disciplines, Tien has to battle each in a kind of graduation which leads to him becoming the leader of the thief tribe.
Jaa successfully mixes Thai dance and fighting when his character attacks the king who killed his family. The dance is professionally executed and provides a welcome break to all the violence around it. Using a lavish setting and intense editing, excitement is built as Tien uses the dance to approach the king and launch a surprise attack. The fighting is weapons based and includes some superb trickery including smoke bombs and grenades, creating a dynamic and full on action scene.
On returning from his attack on Lord Rajasena, Tien finds his village empty and is confronted by an anonymous assassin and after battling with swords for several minutes, Tien seemingly defeats the assassin and is immediately faced with another enemy. With hardly any gaps in the action, almost the entire end of the film sees Tien battling multiple masked enemies, some in groups and some in individual fights, with the next set of enemies lying in the wings as he defeats the previous ones at hand.
The fighting in this battle heavily features swordplay amongst other weapons from different martial arts. Various empty hand styles are seen such as Kung Fu, Aikido and of course Jaa’s famously brutal Thai boxing. The action scene is built up with explosions and trickery and a huge bamboo scaffolding in the village provides a creative platform for some unique manoeuvres and techniques.
When Tien is at his most vulnerable an elephant comes from the jungle to help him and is used in a never seen before, unique way to provide an apparatus for attacks on different levels using backflips and dropping kicks. The scene comes to a climax when Tien is suddenly dropped by one of the king’s guards and a procession of guards surround him to create a dramatic revelation. Tien takes on one of his ultimate foes in a dramatic slow motion altercation with swords, which includes a surprise twist in the narrative and ultimately sets up the next film in the series.
The film could be seen as a creative exploration of what a martial arts film could be in a truly post-modern context. In this way it could be seen almost as a love letter from Tony Jaa to the genre itself. In the same way Quentin Tarantino makes films from his favourite genres, it also includes references from seminal movies in the history of martial arts movies such as using the triple iron made famous in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and incorporating global styles such as MMA, Jiu Jitsu and many others. A real statement of capability from the Thai film industry, “Ong Bak: Beginning” is a fantastically neurotic action film and makes some powerfully important statements as it pushed martial arts action potential to the outer edge as we know it (for now).
- Several scenes which were filmed in Cambodia were cut out from the final edit because of a dispute between Thai and Cambodian authorities.
- The sinister crow character, seen at the end of the film, is a played by Dan Chupong, a friend of Tony Jaa’s who trained at the same martial arts academy as him when they were younger. Chupong also worked on the first Ong Bak film and is a superb (albeit somewhat underrated) stunt player in his own right.
- The film was co-directed and co-written by the late Master Panna Rittikrai. Rittikrai, Thailand’s equivalent of Jackie Chan was a stuntman and actor throughout the 1980’s, starring in over fifty Thai B-movies mentored and trained Tony Jaa in the craft of stunts and movie martial arts.
- Sorapong Chatree won best supporting actor for his role in the film at the 2009 Thailand National Film Association Awards. The film was nominated for a further 7 awards that year including best actor for Tony Jaa.