Thai martial arts star to kick high in U.S.
Craig Reid, Reuters/Los Angeles
From a standing position, he jumps straight up, kicks a pad suspended 15 feet above the ground and on the way down spins like a yo-yo and lands on one foot, then effortlessly leaps up and runs across the shoulders of five men like stepping stones on a river.
No wires, special effects, no camera techniques, just a live demonstration.
Welcome to the world of Tony Jaa, not only Thai cinema's most famous martial arts star, but with his debut film Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior perhaps the next big martial arts movie icon to follow in the steps of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li by breaking through in the West.
Ong Bak is frenetically directed by Thai television ad director Prachya Pinkaew and is a story about pious Buddhist country bumpkin Ting (Jaa) who is sent to "Sin City" Bangkok to retrieve the stolen head of a statue, his jungle village's symbol of life.
With his interest in Asian film sparked by working with Jet Li on Kiss of the Dragon and the soon to be released Unleashed, it's no wonder that Luc Besson, director of Fifth Element and Joan of Arc, purchased the English-language distribution rights to the film.
The film is currently in limited release but expected to open nationwide later.
When asked how he developed such phenomenal jumping abilities, Jaa said in an interview with Reuters, Flower and Leaves and therein lies the tale:
Born Panom Yee-rum in a jungle village in Thailand's northeastern Surin province, near the Cambodian border, Jaa raised elephants as a child and each day would leap up onto the backs of two baby elephants, Flower and Leaves, and did so 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 like pick up leaves or water and throw it back at you, you become attached to the elephant 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'd always be reminded we lived in a Red area near the Cambodian border," Jaa says, "so there was a constant wartime reminder where we'd hear the planes coming and have to literally run away from the bombs."
During those tumultuous times, besides tending his father's rice paddies and somersaulting off elephants into the river, Jaa found solace and direction by watching Bruce Lee and early Jackie Chan films shown outdoors on white sheets when a projectionist visited the village.
"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."
To Westerners, Thai martial arts are Thai kickboxing, known as Muay Thai. However, Muay Thai is not a martial art but a sport that has been around since 1930, its techniques being a watered down version of the lethal martial art Muay Boran.
With a US$12 million budget and four years in the making, Ong Bak features Jaa in highly stylized, pugilistic Muay Thai mayhem, performing overtly dangerous stunts that rival the best of Chan all done without doubles, wires and special effects.
"I refuse to use wires for safety because I want people to see it's real and bring back that feeling from Jackie's prime years and show those kind of film stunts to the public eye.
"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 the ring fighting," he said.