Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hi-Jaa! Fast and Furious 7 is back on in Thailand

Fast and Furious 7, featuring the long-awaited Hollywood debut of Thai action star Tony Jaa, had been blocked from screening in Thailand by a court injunction, but now seems likely to screen here after all, opening on, no joke, April Fool's Day.

The story of this goes back to last week, just after Jaa finished a press conference to talk to Thai reporters about his own movie Skin Trade as well as his work in Fast and Furious 7 and the Hong Kong martial-arts flick SPL II. That same day, lawyers for Jaa's former employer Sahamongkol Film International, had obtained an injunction from the Civil Court, blocking the film's release.

Talk about bad timing for Jaa and his manager-producer Michael Selby, and by the time reporters at the press conference heard about it, Jaa was already in the air, jetting back to Los Angeles.

Sahamongkol's move to block Fast and Furious 7 was widely reported in the local and international press, but the reality of the situation seemed vague, and gave me pause, which is why I've waited until now to write about it. The supposed injunction seemed to have no effect, other than to get people talking about the film, probably the opposite of what Sahamongkol's domineering boss Somsak "Sia Jiang" Techarattanaprasert intended.

Thai fans of Vin Diesel's car-chase franchise took to the social networks to speak out against the injunction and called for a boycott of Sahamongkol films. That prompted prominent director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol to issue a plea to Thais to not boycott his upcoming film, The Legend of King Naresuan Part VI, which is distributed through Sahamongkol. Film Business Asia had more on that.

Meanwhile, Fast and Furious 7 posters that had been up for weeks still adorned the coming attractions boxes at cinemas, the trailers were still playing and multiplex websites were still touting advance ticket sales ahead of the April 1 release.

It seemed likely that Fast and Furious 7 – that really is what they are calling it in Thailand – was going to go ahead and play, in spite of the court's ruling. Indeed, one multiplex chain, SF Cinema City, said it planned to defy the injunction and show the movie anyway.

Then yesterday afternoon, word quickly spread that lawyers for Furious 7 distributor UIP had succeeded in getting the injunction lifted. So the initial court ruling seemed like an April Fool's prank by Sia Jiang that backfired.

Anyway, fans will get to see Jaa's villain Kiat tangle on the big screen with the late Furious star Paul Walker, in one of his last performances. Of course, there's a clip of the fight on YouTube, and it's embedded below.

At the heart of Sahamongkol's moves is a long-simmering contract dispute. Sia Jiang, recipient of a lifetime achievement honor at the recent Bangkok Critics Assembly Awards, insists that Jaa is under contract with his studio until 2023, as the result of an extension of his first 10-year contract, which kept him tied to Sahamongkol and only Sahamongkol. However, the contract extension was supposedly mailed to Jaa's old home address and apparently signed by a random family member. Jaa, who has become estranged from his family over various disputes (they don't much like his wife), insists the contract is not valid.

In filing for the injunction, Sahamongkol's lawyer named Jaa, Fast and Furious producer Universal and movie distributor UIP as defendants, and demanded 1.60 billion baht, or about $50 million, with 7.5 percent interest until payment is made. That's the amount of money Sahamongkol says it has invested in Jaa over the years, and includes 26 million baht given to Jaa to make the aborted "Eastern western" Ai Noom Gangnam, a.k.a. A Man Will Rise, which had Jaa co-starring with Dolph Lundgren. Those two apparently hit it off big time, declared mutual admiration and set off to work on Skin Trade. According to a story in The Nation today (generated from last Thursday's press conference), only about 20 percent of A Man Will Rise was completed.

Other sore spots with Sahamongkol over the years have included Jaa's infamous meltdown during the making of Ong-Bak 2 and the lackluster performance of 2013's Tom-Yum-Goong 2, which flopped in a local release that wasn't supported in the least by Jaa because he was already on the outs with the studio.

Meanwhile, Skin Trade is due in Thai cinemas on April 23. Selby produced it, and it's directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham, the helmer of the critically acclaimed Beautiful Boxer. In addition to Lundgren, the cast also had Ron Perlman, Peter Weller, Michael Jai White and Celina Jade in a story about an Interpol officer (Jaa) and a New York cop (Lundgren) fighting the Russian mob over human trafficking in Bangkok. Jaa also thinks that SPL II might be shown in Thailand, maybe sometime in June. I hope it does get a good release here. It looks fantastic. I wait with bated breath for more injunctions to be sought by Sahamongkol.

By the way, Jaa has stopped using his new Thai name Thatchakorn Yeerum, and has gone back to telling people his name is Phanom Yeerum, or better yet Jaa Phanom Yeerum, but only in Thailand where the new name never really stuck anyway. Elsewhere, he's just plain old Tony Jaa, international action-movie star.

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