Asia has accepted action and adventure films for a long time. People love to see the fighting scenes even though they seem unreal, especially the thrills of the martial arts. Some people will overlook the weak points of films just to follow a film star in action and see how the choreographer creates his wonders. So it is with Thai audiences as well.
Tony Jaa, who's real name is Panom Yeerum, was born in 1976 in Surin (Issan Province in Thailand's Northeast, near the Laotian and Cambodian border). He is the third of four children of parents who are rice farmers and mahouts (elephant trainers). As a child, Panom raised elephants and each day would play with them by leaping onto the backs of two baby elephants, "Flower" and "Leaf". He did this every day for many years; as the elephants grew so did his jumping abilities.
"Riding elephants is a skill in itself," Jaa says, "but when you train them to pick up leaves or water and throw it back at you, you become attached to them and you must eventually become one with them."
But childhood life wasn't all peaceful and serene. "As a kid playing with the elephants, we were always reminded that we lived in a 'Red' area near the Cambodian border", Jaa says, "so there was constant wartime terror when we'd hear the planes coming and have to literally run away from the bombs."
During those chaotic times, besides tending his father's rice paddies and somersaulting off elephants into the river, Panom found solace and direction by watching Bruce Lee and early Jackie Chan films, shown outdoors on white sheets, when a projectionist visited the village. He traveled as much as 10 kilometers just to watch a film. "Because of Bruce and Jackie, I realized I wanted to be a martial arts film star", Jaa said. "But they were doing Chinese kung-fu. I wanted to do something to show the world Thai culture, Thai martial arts, so I decided to practice Muay Thai Boran (Ancient boxing)."
The young Jaa worked hard to become a champion. He trained every morning from 5am to 10am followed by an evening session right after school. His father used to train him since he was also a Muay Thai boxer. At the age of 10 he discovered a film called Born to Fight (Kerd Ma Lui, 1978) directed by Panna Rittikrai, a famous Thai stuntman.
After his third year of college (secondary school for some countries), around the age of 13-14, Tony asked Panna if he could live and train with him. Panna thought that he was too young and wanted him finish his schooling, but allowed Tony to train with him during his spare time. This is when Jaa began to work in films and do various backstage jobs from being a water boy, to cleaning the sets, cooking, holding the umbrella over the cameraman
Finally, at the age of 15, Panna took Jaa under his wing and became his master. Panna was living in Khon Kaen, a province in the Northeastern highlands and Jaa traveled there to study with him. When Jaa was 21, Panna advised him to study at Maha Sarakhma Physical Education College, a school that specialized in sports sciences. All of the Martial Arts are taught there and Jaa would study more styles of fighting including Tae-Kwan-Do, Muay Thai, swordplay, Krabi Krabong, Judo, Aikido, gymnastics, and many more skills, plus acting and stunt skills.
After hard training for a while, Panna recommended Jaa for stunt jobs in several films. At the same time, Jaa tried to blend acting skills with Thai fighting skills along with fundamental concepts of gymnastics, and performed in road shows at schools. As the president of the Swordplay Club in college, he became a representative to demonstrate the arts of Thai fighting skills in China, as well as a representative to all demonstrations in the northeastern region of Thailand. Jaa consistently won the gold medal in college competitions of swordplay, gymnastics, and track-and-field.
Jaa studied Muay Thai for four years and then prepared three years for Ong-Bak (The Thai Warrior). All of the fighting in the film is done without wires, stunt doubles or digital effects. "I refuse to use wires for safety because I want people to see the 'reality' and bring back that feeling from Jackie Chan's prime years. Besides, the wires interfere with the real techniques and I wish to show the world the other side of Thai martial arts, not just what most think is fighting in an arena". On its release, Ong-Bak, in which Tony Jaa also worked as fight choreographer, became a smash hit and established Jaa as Thailand's top action actor.
Ong Bak refers to a Buddha statue kept in a temple in rural Thailand. It dates from the time of the Thai/Burmese war, 200 years ago. The villagers believe Ong Bak is imbued with magical powers that will keep them safe from harm.
One dark night, a former native of the village, Don, has his men cut the head of the statute to win favor with a ruthless crime boss. The locals regard the theft as a catastrophe, and seek a champion to retrieve their lost treasure. They find their man in Ting (Tony Jaa), an orphaned youngster raised at the local temple, and schooled by a monk, in an ancient system of Muay Thai: 'Nine Body Weapons'.
Ting travels to the mean streets of Bangkok, where he finds that the head of Ong Bak in the possession of a local gang boss, Khom Tuan. Ting meets another native of Nong Pra-du, George, and a street waif, Muay Lek. He enlists their help in his quest. The ensuing adventures sees our heroes engage in fist-fights, running street battles and an intricate chase sequence featuring tuk-tuks, the famous three-wheeled Thai taxis.
To recover the Buddha head, Ting is forced to compete in illegal street fights, taking on both local and foreign opponents. His superior skills make him a natural champion, and he even agrees to throw a fight with a Burmese boxer when he's promised the return of Ong Bak.
At the end, Khom Tuan betrays Ting, leading to a final encounter in a cave situated on the border between Thailand and Burma. Ting is forced to use every ounce of his courage and stamina in a final martial arts battle of truly epic proportions.
In February 2005, Ong Bak became the first film from Thailand that brought together the abilities of the actor Tony Jaa and martial arts and stunt choreographer Panna Rittikrai. This film was directed by Prachya Pinkaew and has enjoyed box-office success in many countries. Tony Jaa became a new hero in Thai Boxing. He is a new action hero for children and audiences around the world. In April 2005, he was featured in GQ magazine and in July 2005, he was selected to be among "122 people and things we love this summer."
A Personal review: The constant criticism of Ong Bak is its plot. Many critics argue that Ong Bak's story is quite weak. But I believe that those who want to make this type of film should not focus more on the plot. I don't mean that the plot is not important, but at least the martial arts sequences should be of equal concern. In my opinion, Ong Bak does not have a bad story. It's the continuity that is problematic. It's not a smooth film. After watching it several times, I feel that Ong Bak is primarily a martial arts 'presentation', not a martial arts 'film'. The problem may be that all action sequences were created before the plot was written. Nevertheless, I still say that the story for martial arts films is not of primary concern, though it would enhance the experience if it moved more smoothly. Write a simple story, but make sure that audiences won't be asking themselves "why" or "how", etc. Yet, in an interesting way, the film is able to manipulate a viewer's feelings. It does, indeed, make you hate the bad guys so much that you can't help but imagine yourself jumping into the film and kicking those bad butts on behalf of the hero. Now that would be a wild action film and quite an adventure.