Saturday, December 4, 2004

Tom Yum Goong press junket

Pushing to top the cult-hit success of Ong Bak, Sahamongkol Film International spared no expense recently in flying 60 Thai journalists down to Australia for the filming of Tom Yum Goong, the big-budget sequel.

Buzz about the movie has also hit the web, with some posts at KungfuCinema, among other places. There's also tons of pictures here and here.

The Nation's Parinyaporn Payee and Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee (sorry, link is now archived) were there. Here's some of Kong's story:

"We want to show that a Thai film can be made with an international standard, with international locations and crew," Sahamongkol's big boss Somsak Techaratanaprasert beamed. "With the blockbuster success of Ong-Bak overseas, we hope to push it up to the next level."

That level means a 200-million-baht budget, making Tom Yum Goong the second most expensive Thai film ever after Suriyothai. The next level also means 90 percent of the shooting will take place in Sydney ... Australian crew, required by the Aussie law, shuffle about along with the Thai ones. Foreign cast, though their names are not entirely familiar, include the two-metre-tall giant Nathan Jones, a wrestling star, and the hunkish Johnny Nguyen, an LA-born stuntman who arrives with a unique reputation: he was the stunt double for Toby McGuire in Spider-Man.

But the brightest star is our local lad Panom "Jaa" Yeerum. Dubbed the next Bruce Lee, the new Jackie Chan, the kick-butt maestro, etc etc, this humble Isaan boy who catapulted into the global spotlight after his neck-cracking opus in Ong-Bak generated flurries of ticket sales everywhere from Bangkok to Paris and Tokyo to London.

"I'm sure the action will be more intense," Jaa says wiping sweat from his forehead. "We have foreign action stars joining us, and we've planned more stunning Muay Thai moves. It's going to be fun."

In Ong-Bak Jaa plays a country bumpkin who travels to Bangkok to retrieve a stolen Buddha image. In Tom Yum Goong, he plays a country bumpkin who travels to Sydney to retrieve a stolen elephant. The culprit is a femme fatale who runs an evil empire out of her Thai restaurant called, what else, Tom Yum Goong. No wonder the motive behind the film's title is to advertise the saucy Thainess of the action to foreign markets -- just like the famous shrimp soup has done to the world.

Jaa, bent on finding the lost elephant, clashes with three baddies as the Sydney Monorail rumbles over his head, and ends up teaching them a few physical education lessons with his elbows.

"What's the movie?" a woman asks me. "A Thai movie" I say. "Who's in it?". I tell them. She nods and says "Hmm." Never mind, Ong-Bak will open in Australia next February, at about the same time Tom Yum Goong will open in Thailand.

Jaa sprints along, springs himself up, double-kicks two minions mid-air with each of his legs, and on the way down training his right elbow to the unfortunate skull of Johnny Nguyen, who duly collapses to the ground. Such magnificent athleticism, even more stunning in real life, is the genesis of Ong-Bak's no-stunt, no-wirework motto.

Shoddy narrative and subpar acting are not a nuisance, instead easily compensated for with a series of cool, photogenic setpieces administered by the hero. That worked with Ong-Bak, and director Prachya's certain it'll work again in this sequel.

Indeed, Jaa's skull-smashing move is so cool that, perhaps for the first time in the brief history of contemporary Thai cinema, the journalists successfully plead with the director to call for a retake so we can snap up photos. Unusual reason for a retake, but for an investment of this magnitude, the promotion blitz starts even before the film's finished.

Prachya and his crew plan to spend a month shooting around Sydney. The more time Down Under, the more the budget balloons. But Prachya bites his lips to admit that it's his own call; the writer-director wrote a script with Sydney in the story. And now, rushing to finish the final shot of a long day, he can't refute that it's all more burdening that he'd first imagined.

The director says he's chosen Sydney because he'd shot two music videos here back in the early 1990s, and fell for the laid-back charm of the city. "But when we're working full scale, with 50 crew people, it's more complicated than I first thought. I happened to specify Sydney in the script, so we've got to stick with it. But back then I had yet to scout locations in France and the US, and come to think of it now, perhaps those two countries might've been more convenient for us!"

Prachya's big headache now is a key scene which involves a live elephant, one that the Jaa character comes to rescue. "Australia, as you know, is so strict about forbidding the import of any live organism," the director says. "Bringing an elephant here is a giant task. But we must find a way to do it. There's no other way else to shoot that scene."

Topping one's own hit is an equally giant task. Prachya's erected a formidable barrier for himself when Ong-Bak raked in 120 million baht -- plus a few hundred million more in the international market. In Paris alone the ticket sales were something close to seven million euros. "I'm aware of the stake. But I think this is going to be a better movie. I believe that."

Before the evening folds, Sahamongkol screens a freshly-cut teaser of Tom Yum Goong to the journalists and the crew, who rub their hands in anticipation.

Reportedly this teaser created quite a stir among foreign buyers when it was shown at the recent American Film Market, and indeed the two-minute promo clip is packed with the same kinetic vigour that constituted the rough appeal of Ong-Bak, complete with Jaa's lethal choreographs and a chase scene in long-tailed boats (it was a pack of tuk-tuk in the first film).

Parinyaporn offers more on the plot and cast:

In the story, a young man named Khon (Jaa) who grows up with an elephant named Kham tries to help rescue Kham’s brother, who has been sold by Thai gangsters to Australian thugs. Khon ventures to Australia, where with the help of a Thai prostitute (played by Bongkot "Tak" Kongmalai from Ai Fak and Bang Rajan), he endeavours to find Kham’s brother and bring him back to Thailand.

Mum Jokmok, who also appeared in Ong Bak, also pops up again in a buddy role, this time as a Thai policeman.

"It’s not the second episode. Actually, we worked a lot to develop a new plot so it shouldn’t seem cliche," said Prachya.

And in order to head off gripes that too much muay Thai might make the new film too similar to his last one, the director has spiced up Tom Yum Goong with different martial arts like wushu and kung-fu, which are practised by the villains.

This time, the muay Thai hero played by Jaa squares off against a bad guy played by Australian Nathan Jones, a former wrestler and contestant in the Strongest Man in the World competition, who previously appeared in Jackie Chan’s First Strike, and more recently in Troy as the guy who gets stabbed by Brad Pitt early on in the film.

Also appearing as a mafia boss is transvestite Jing Xing, who was the first Chinese ballet dancer to get a scholarship to study in New York with the famous Martha Graham. Today she has her own ballet team and performs around the world with them when not portraying pretty but scary villains on the big screen.

Jaa said that the film’s action scenes, which he helped his mentor Phanna to choreograph, will use an ancient muay Thai style loosely based on the movement of elephants.

"In the movie you will see martial arts that remind you of the elephant," he said.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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