Panna Rittikrai (พันนา ฤทธิไกร), the martial-arts choreographer who put Thai action movies on the world cinema map, has died.
According to The Nation, Panna died from liver disease on Sunday afternoon in a Bangkok hospital. He was 53, and had been battling illness since last November. Other reports can be found at Bangkok Post, Film Business Asia, Twitch and Film Combat Syndicate.
Tributes poured in on Twitter, most notably from Panna's former protégé Tony Jaa, who worked with Panna on B-movie action flicks for a decade before they made Ong-Bak in 2003, and kicked the Thai movie industry into high gear:
No matter the difficulties in relationships, people should be happy at the end of the day. Rest In Peace old friend. pic.twitter.com/maSiStKeX9
— Tony Jaa (@tonyjaaofficial) July 20, 2014
Another fitting tribute came from director Gareth Evans, who made the Indonesian martial-arts franchise The Raid:
What Panna and Jaa did w/ Ong Bak revitalised martial arts cinema. The importance of that film on the genre is huge.
— Gareth Evans (@ghuwevans) July 20, 2014
Evans also posted a link to the Dragon Dynasty trailer for 2004's Born to Fight. One of Panna's best movies, it's a sizzle reel of everything that is amazing about his innovations, which often took actors and stunt performers to the edge of danger – the truck wheel misses his head by just that much.
Converging movements, such as groups of fighters lunging toward each other from each side of the frame, explosions, flaming objects and crazy car and bike stunts are other Panna Rittikrai trademarks. It's stuff Michael Bay dreams of, but only does digitally. With Panna, the stunts were real and human, and the stakes were high.
Born in 1961 in Khon Kaen, Panna headed to Bangkok in 1979 to work in the movie business, starting out training actors how to do action. After a few years of that, he put together his own stunt team and headed back to his hometown. Taking inspiration from the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and the Bond movies, he ground out a series of gritty B-grade action flicks that played second run houses in Bangkok but were vastly more popular in Panna's native Northeast. It was during this period that he met Tony Jaa and started working with him. Titles from this era include Spirited Killer and Hard Gun, and after Ong-Bak was a hit, such DVD labels as BCI Eclipse started mining Panna's back-catalog.
When the boom years of the "Thai New Wave" hit in the late 1990s and early aughts, Panna and Jaa figured they had enough footage to impress a big Thai studio. Producer-director Prachya Pinkaew got ahold of some, took it to Sahamongkol Film International, and Ong-Bak was born, becoming a worldwide phenomenon and jump-starting the Thai action-film industry.
Jaa's lost-elephant adventure Tom-Yum-Goong (a.k.a. The Protector or Warrior King) followed.
Panna and his team were also kept busy on all sorts of other Sahamongkol projects, such as stringing comedian Mum Jokmok up on wires for the rollicking action-comedy The Bodyguard or teaching Ananda Everingham to swordfight in the Rashomon remake The Outrage.
Among the best of this period was the aforementioned Born to Fight (Gerd Ma Lui, เกิดมาลุย), a remake in name only of one of his 1980s films. The 2004 version introduced another of Panna's protégés, "Diew" Chupong Changprang, playing a Muay Thai champ who goes to a village with a bunch of Thai national athletes, including a female taekwondo champion ("Nui" Kessarin Ektawatkul), a sepak tawkraw kicker, a rugby tough and a gymnast (take that Gymkata!). There's even a little girl Muay Thai fighter – "Katt" Sasisa Jindamanee. She would later turn up in a couple more of Panna's projects, Somtum with wrestler and Tom-Yum-Goong fighter Nathan Jones, and Power Kids.
Other notable efforts by Panna and his team included Chocolate, which introduced martial-arts pixie Jeeja Yanin to the world.
One of my favorites is Dynamite Warrior, which marked Panna's return to acting after a couple of decades. He played an evil sorcerer who needs the menstrual blood of a virgin in order to cast a spell.. Diew Chupong tangles with him, along with water buffalo rustlers, a giant cannibalistic criminal and a hi-so steam-tractor dealer with a lisp.
Meanwhile, Jaa was endeavoring to strike out on his own as star, director and action choreographer on Ong-Bak 2, a historical-epic origin tale of the first Ong-Bak. Delays and budget overruns put pressure on Jaa, and he had his infamous meltdown. Panna was called in by Sahamongkol Film honcho Somsak "Sia Jiang" Techarattanaprasert to play peacemaker and get the project back on track as a co-director.
From that point, Jaa's relationship with Sia Jiang become strained, though he did a few more films for the studio with Panna's steady hand. Ong-Bak 3 followed, and then a hiatus while Jaa got married and started a family.
There was Tom-Yum-Goong 2, and the "eastern western" A Man Will Rise with Jaa and Dolph Lundgren. Panna handled the action, and it was produced by Sahamongkol.
But now that Jaa has split from Sahamongkol in order to work in Hollywood and Hong Kong, it seems unlikely A Man Will Rise will get a release anytime soon.
And, there's another Panna Rittikrai action film already in the can, completed last year before he became ill – Rew Talu Rew (เร็วทะลุเร็ว , a.k.a. Vengeance of an Assassin). According to Film Business Asia, it stars Panna's Born to Fight leads, Diew Chupong and Nui Kessarin; he's a hitman who goes on the run after he is ordered to kill a woman under his protection.
There's plenty of other tributes around the Web. Hit the various links at the top of the article. And though I won't link to them, there's hospital photos of Panna. They are sad, but Tony Jaa did go visit him.
I'll leave you with a behind-the-scenes featurette from Bangkok Knockout, showing the master at work.