The message of this action film is “don’t lose your head.” Unfortunately, that is what happens to Ting’s village when big city antiquity thieves steal the head of their Buddha statue. Ting learned the ancient Muay Boran discipline, a forerunner of Muay Thai, from the village priest. He has only practiced and sparred, but it turns out he really is a formidable in-real-life fighter when he sets off in search of the missing head in Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Ong-Bak #1), which screens as part of MoMA’s 20th Anniversary celebration of Magnolia Pictures.
The Ong-Bak statue is far from the most imposing in Thailand, but without, the village is sure to suffer ill-fate, so they take up a collection and send Ting on his way. Once in the big city, he looks up his cousin Humlae, the village’s prodigal son. Humlae happens to be a gambling addict, who regularly loses money in the underground fights hosted by the nefarious crime-lord Komluan, whose most profitable business is the illicit trade of traditional Buddhist artifacts.
Right, so you can probably see where this all is headed. The path to recovering the Ong-Bak will definitely run through Komluan’s bare-knuckle matches. There is also one of the most over-the-top tuk tuk chases ever filmed. Of course, the narrative itself is pretty grungy and straightforward: country boy takes on slimy city slickers. However, Panna Rittikrai’s fight choreography and Tony Jaa’s stunt work will still impress the heck out of fans.
Ong-Bak released, but it is striking how young (and appropriately naïve) he looks here. Although still pretty green on-screen, Jaa has a down-to-earth earnestness that serves him well and contrasts effectively with Petchtai Wongkamlao’s broader, shtickier work as Humlae. Despite being wheelchair-bound and emphysema-wracked, Suchao Pongwilai makes Komtuan quite a sinister villain, while Pumwaree Yodkamoi adds some upbeat energy as Humlae’s friend and co-scammer Muay Lek (even though her character gets some rough editing treatment).
The fighting is clearly the main attraction in any Tony Jaa film, but Pinkaew adds an appealing spiritual dimension and manages to hit a note of high tragedy in the wildly cinematic finale. Regardless, Jaa’s knees and elbows put on a real show, without the benefit of CGI or wirework. A must-see for Muay Thai fans, the original Ong-Bak screens the old-fashioned way this Wednesday (9/22) and Friday (9/24) at MoMA (and it also streams on Tubi).