Monday, July 30, 2007

Review: Muay Thai Chaiya

  • Directed by Kongkiat Khomsiri
  • Starring Akara Amarttayakul, Thawatchai Penpakdee, Sonthaya Chitmanee, Sarita Kongpech, Sangthong Ket-U-Tong
  • Premiered on July 29, 2007 as the closing film at the Bangkok International Film Festival; wide release in Thailand on August 30, 2007.

Landing a one-two elbow blow that's hard enough to leave blood in your stool, yet sentimentally sweet and nostalgic enough to bring tears to your eyes, Muay Thai Chaiya was a winner as the closing film of the Bangkok International Film Festival.

The solo directorial debut of Kongkiat Khomsiri, who wrote the screenplay for Wisit Sasanatieng's The Unseeable and co-directed Art of the Devil 2, Muay Thai Chaiya is set in 1970s Thailand, and follows the exploits of three friends from southern Thailand as they come to Bangkok and then take divergent paths in the gritty world of Thai boxing.

Growing up in Chaiya, a fishing village in Surat Thani, three boys, Piak, Pao and Samor, are keen to follow in the footsteps of Pao's brother, Krang (Prawit Kittichanthira), a legendary boxer who is taught by Pao's father, Tew (former boxing and Muay Thai champ Samart Payakaroon). The three boys share a bonding experience that leaves Samor a limping cripple, and then Piak and Pao both train as boxers under Tew. As Tew's and Krang's reputation grow, the big operators in Bangkok come calling, and Tew's idyllic beachside boxing camp is scattered to the wind.

Piak, meanwhile, endures some hard knocks when his gambler father is killed. But he then woos a pretty nurse, Sripai (first-timer Sarita Kongpech, a doe-eyed Thai-Spanish actress), who has also caught the eye of Pao. Though good friends, Piak and Pao differ in style, with Piak hot-headed and brash, while Pao is a quiet strategist.

When they are old enough, Piak (Akara "Golf" Amarttayakul)and Pao (Thawatchai Penpakdee) make their way to Bangkok, with buddy Samor (Sonthaya Chitmanee, from The Tin Mine) and Piak's sweetheart Sripai in tow. They find that Krang is dead as the result of some shady business, and Tew has given up boxing and entered the monkhood.

The two fighters join a gym, and Piak is put forward as a top boxer, with Pao and expert cut-man Samor as his corner men. Piak's impatience costs him a fight, though, and his career is soon ended. The two friends part ways, with Piak and Samor joining up with some gangsters. Piak then becomes the star of an underground fight club, where anything goes - knives, swords, pipes, makeshift body armor, the cannibal from Dynamite Warrior, anything. Pao disappears from the scene for awhile, amidst all the debauchery and mayhem.

As Piak and Samor become more deeply involved in the underworld, enforcing gambling debts, dosing fighters with laxative and even killing people, the movie takes on a bloody and violent tone that wouldn't be out of place in a Martin Scorsese film. "It's like a 'Thai Goodfellas'," one member of the audience said in a Q&A session after the screening. There's even some rousing rock music (I heard a snippet of Hendrix) playing, with plenty of jump cuts between killings.

And with the boxing scenes, it's more Raging Bull than Rocky, and I also couldn't help but think about the Shaw Brothers' Duel of Fists, directed by Chang Cheh and starring Ti Lung and David Chiang as long-lost brothers, involved in the muay Thai underworld in Bangkok. Muay Thai Chaiya even has a heaping helping of heroic bloodshed, just like in a Chang Cheh film.

Sangthong Ket-U-Tong takes on a much different role than she played in Citizen Dog, here playing a sexy go-go dancer who Piak takes up with, and Sripai flees to Pao.

Oh yeah, Pao. He eventually makes a return to the scene, as a boxer being coached by his father, who's come out of the monkhood. Eventually Pao is set to fight a big bout, which places him at odds with the gangsters Piak and Samor work for.

There's a big bloody showdown, with Piak hacking his way into the boxing stadium using two-handed Thai swords, and facing off against a Bruce Lee look-alike who even pulls out a pair of nunchuks to try and show who's the big boss.

Along the way, there is plenty of heart and physical soul poured out. The lead actors trained extensively in Thai boxing (the film is co-sponsored by Fairtex gym), and a lot of effort was put into making the fights appear authentic. There are boxing dramas and there are boxing dramas; Muay Thai Chaiya is a Thai boxing drama, through and through.

The film has atmosphere, too, with a feel for 1970s Bangkok achieved through such details as old Pepsi signs adorning the front of the boxing stadium, and some old boxing posters in the office of the boxing promoter. It helps that Wisit Sasanatieng served as an uncredited art director for the film; he has such an eye for detail, as shown in his own films, Tears of the Black Tiger, Citizen Dog and The Unseeable.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

BKKIFF 2007 review: Mystic Ball

  • Directed by Greg Hamilton
  • Reviewed at the 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 4/5

Mystic Ball is a 2006 documentary film directed by and starring Greg Hamilton, chronicling the Canadian man's two-decades-long obsession with a Burmese sport-artform called chinlone. Played by six players in a circular ring, using their feet to pass each other a cane ball that is perhaps six inches in diameter, it is described as non-competitive sport that is only about completing the most beautiful moves possible.

Originally conceived as a documentary about chinlone, the documentary morphed into becoming a movie about Hamilton, a Canadian of Africa-American-Irish descent who grew up in foster homes and was bullied and picked on during his childhood. He obtained a background in martial arts, but one day during the 1980s in Toronto, he saw a Burmese immigrant playing chinlone, and from there became steadily obsessed with learning the game.

It is a journey that has taken him from Canada to Myanmar many times, and has made him famous in Myanmar as the only foreigner to participate in chinlone, which is only played in Myanmar. Similar forms of chilone exist. In Thailand and other southeast Asian countries, there is sepak takraw, which is a competitive sport played by teams on either side of a net, like volleyball. There's also a circle form of takraw, but it is not the same as chinlone.

Though Hamilton takes center stage, a move that Hamilton says was necessary for him to find backers in the West and help foreign audiences relate to the film, the documentary does a good job of presenting the Myanmar players who are the best in the game. These include the incredible Su Su Llaing, who is also a chilone soloist, performing acrobat feats and balancing, all while bouncing a ball on the top of her feet.

Ultimately, the goal for Hamilton is to spread word about chilone to the world outside Myanmar, and possibly form an international tour of Myanmar's top chinlone practitioners.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)