VIETNAM 2009 Directed by: Le Thanh Son Written by: Johnny Tri Nguyen Produced by: Jimmy Pham, Thanh Truc Nguyen Cinematography by: Dominic Pereira Editing by: Ham Tran Music by: Christopher Wong Cast: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Thanh Van Ngo, Hieu Hien, Hoang Phuc Nguyen, Lam Minh Thang
Once upon a time Thailand was the rising star of martial arts cinema. Those were the days of raw energy, no-holds-barred filmmaking, stunts without wires or safety net and a good portion of disrespect towards genre conventions. But the only constant is change, and maybe it’s time for a reality check.
Looking at one of the latest productions coming out of the kingdom, BANGKOK KNOCKOUT, it becomes apparent that times are a-changing indeed: in a forum, amid all the expected and undifferentiated praise for another “martial arts masterpiece”, one member pointed out correctly that all there was to the trailer was “wirework and sped-up frames”. Even though the film does not rely on trickery alone, it is also a fact that current Thai martial arts films are not true to their origins any more. What once made Tony Jaa and co. successful has been replaced by a more commercial, “convenient” approach that can easily satisfy the masses without breaking bones and risking lives anymore. It’s the beginning of a McDonaldization of Thai action cinema: mass production of something that feels just like the real thing to the casual viewer, but really isn’t.
Now watch CLASH for a change and you will see a lot of the qualities that many Thai movies are missing nowadays, and we have missed for a while. That’s not saying that CLASH wouldn’t resort to trickery as well, but the result is substantially different: CLASH hurts and gives you little reason to believe that it’s not for real most of the time. Legibility of intricate action is not about the better choreography (arguably, CLASH features better choreographed action sequences indeed, even though they are very much inspired by the Tony Jaa school), or better technology, or the better cast, but is about attention to detail: Thai action flicks have never been especially refined, but lately they are increasingly sloppy, careless and almost solely eying a quick ROI, believing good enough is good enough.
CLASH, on the other hand, is getting almost everything right: the action is not always spectacular, but raw and realistic, the script above average with a lot of detailed, well-rounded character description and clear rationalization; then, the cast can do more than just deliver great stunts, and the editing and direction are clearly more crafted than anything Prachya Pinkaew has delivered in all those years. Add to that a significant dose of 80’s Hong Kong gangster film flair and you have a smooth genre blend that is entertaining, gripping and romantic (that goes for both, the love stories as well as the deaths). Oh, and it also has Ms. Thanh Van Ngo, something missing in most Thai actioners I believe.
Nearly a decade after ONG-BAK Thai martial arts cinema is not such a potent symbol for the success of action made in Asia anymore, as it seems too content with its own achievements and leaves innovation and honest filmmaking to others. It is with a bit of regret that I notice that Mr. Nguyen is leaving for Hollywood, dedicating his skills to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS; then again, he wouldn’t be the first one returning to Asia rather sooner than later (not that we don’t wish him good luck).
It is more likely however that we will see the ascendance of Hong Kong cinema once again, rising from the ashes; but whatever Asian cinema will be claiming or reclaiming the martial arts throne in the future, it will have to prove its dominance in other areas than just stunts and grunts, and take both its subject and its audience more seriously than most recent films from Thailand.
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