Last time he was in town, Director Prachya Pinkaew brought the Uptown to ecstasy with Ong Bak. Many (myself included) were ignorant of the Thai school of martial arts, a mix of kicking, elbowing and punching that looked far from the swooping wire-work fight choreography that Hong Kong cinema had been exporting for decades. Quite simply, Ong Bak proved to be a legendary screening at MM.
Cut to five years later, and we have another film to enjoy, this one eschewing Tony Jaa in favour of a young girl, Jeeja Yanin. The story this time round is even more convoluted, as the daughter of a Thai crimelord has an illicit affair with a member of the Yakuza. Their love child is “special”, exhibiting an autistic-like developmental challenge that results in stilted communication, but with the added ability of near superhuman reflexes. She learns to fight by watching the neighboring boxing school, and, naturally, watching Ong Bak and The Protector on video tape. The hand off from the previous success to the new film is by no means subtle nor apologetic, but it’s a charming moment, and went over extremely well at the screening.
This ridiculous plot is of course mere fodder for action sequences galore. As the daughter works with her sidekick friend to recoup money for her mother’s chemotherapy, we are introduced to set piece after set piece, with a line of “bosses” needed to be beaten in order to progress to the next level. It all has the feeling of a 1980s video game, complete with an astounding final sequence that borrows liberally from the geography of Donkey Kong.
All of this would be a terrible mess were it not for a charismatic turn by the lead (who does well not playing “full retard”, to paraphrase Robert Downey Jr.’s non-PC rant in Tropic Thunder), along with spectacular, spine shattering stunt work. Fights take place in a number of exotic locales, kicking ass in an ice factory, a pork processing plant, and the aforementioned chutes-and-ladders Kong setup. The pace is furious, and the moves look legitimately like they’d be painful to perform, let alone impossible to survive if done with a complete lack of safety equipment. This onslaught of action, complete with wacky, over the top characters (the “ladymen” in particular are a hoot) make for a hell of a flick.
As the credits roll, on-set footage of the injuries is presented. Ice pack after ice pack is applied, giant gashes sewn up, and some stunt performers are carried away in neck braces. These are stunts not for the faint hearted, but the visceral nature of the flick certainly makes these sacrifices come to life. If Pinkaew continues to escalate his game, he’ll always be welcomed by the rapturous Toronto Midnight Madness crowd, the safety of his stunt performers be damned!