Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: Fighting Beat

  • Directed by Piti Jaturaphat
  • Starring Thun Thanakorn, Nuttanan Juntarwet, Sura Teerakol, Amornrit Sriphung, Pemmanee Sungkorn, Peerawatcharee Harabut, Sura Sankum
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on November 1, 2007
With its heart in the right place, Fighting Beat, is nonetheless hit-and-miss, irregular and sloppy, with some elements that should have been bypassed to make it a clean kill.

In following the one-two punch of Tony Jaa's Ong-Bak and Tum-Yum-Goong, which have gone "inter" and reaped big sales for studio Sahamongkol Film International, rival Thai studios have struggled to offer the second coming of Ong-Bak. Earlier this year, Five Star offered Muay Thai Chaiya, which fired on all cylinders in terms of storytelling and action, but failed at the local box office. It's just now starting to be shopped overseas, but it's unlikely that it will reap as big as Jaa's films have. Now there's Fighting Beat from Mono Film. In terms of characters and subject matter, it parallels both Ong-Bak and Muay Thai Chaiya.

Like Jaa's protagonists, the hero of Fighting Beat, Khem (Thun Thanakorn) is portrayed as an extremely fit, capable and reverent young man. Khem is an orphan, having been raised since he was a child by a kindly old Buddhist monk. A temple boy, Khem is supposed to awaken at dawn to accompany the monk on his alms rounds. But Khem works late, and has trouble getting up. After the rounds, he moves to his day job, working on a diving boat for the tourist trade on the southern Thailand island, Koh Phi Phi. Here is where the wacky supporting cast are introduced - chiselled young men with killer tattoos and shapely young Thai ladies wearing revealing beach fashions. After the day on the boat, Khem and his merry friends move to their night jobs - working at a bar where the main attraction is staged Muay Thai matches. While the girls serve drinks, Khem and the boys fight in rigged matches, literally taking dives so the foreign tourist opponents always win, stay happy, and stick around to provide everyone on the island with a steady stream of generous tips.

The scheme goes swimmingly until a group of foreign bruisers show up and want to take over the Muay Thai bar. They make mincemeat of the usual foreign opponents and then turn on Khem and his friends. The foreigner bad-asses are aided by a Thai guy, who just happens to be the very guy who killed Khem's father nine years before - a killing that Khem witnessed, was powerless to stop and haunts him in his black-and-white flashback nightmares. So now you know, this is a story of revenge and redemption. There's also a touch of nationalism, with pride for traditional boxing techniques against the corrupted version of Muay Thai "inter".

This all reads better than it is actually executed, with half-hearted jokes (it's not nearly as funny as the preview trailers let on), poorly developed supporting characters and television soap-opera style melodramatic acting. Elements of the story that should get more attention are given the short shrift, while inconsequential parts -- the chess matches between the bar owner, Uncle Phrao (Sura Saenkham, a.k.a. boxer Khaosai Galaxy) and his daughter for example -- are hammered on endlessly.

Among the things touched on too lightly is Khem's transformation into a traditional Thai fighting machine. The whole idea of Fighting Beat is to spotlight a traditional regional style of Muay Thai, Chaiya boxing, just like Muay Thai Chaiya, but it purports to giving an even more accurate portrayal of the techniques. Khem learns this ancient style of boxing in an all-too-brief training sequence, from a mysterious master introduced to Khem by the old monk.

Then, one night, Khem decides to not go to work so he can spend time with the old monk and wake up promptly for the morning alms rounds, the hulking, hairy foreigners come in and kick Khem's friends out of the bar.

Soon, Fighting Beat is ready to wrap up -- it happens so fast you wonder where the time went -- and finally there is a flurry of gritty street fighting, well photographed and edited so you can see the moves. The action's highlight is that move where a fighter seems to run up the torso of an opponent and attack their shoulders and head. This is especially effective when the opponent is a tall, beefy foreigner and the fighter is a trim, lightweight Thai guy. Even the women get in on the action -- they've all been trained in the art of Muay Thai. If you're watching the movie for the action, you could just fast forward to the last 20 minutes or so, because that's where Fighting Beat rocks.

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