Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review: The Sanctuary

  • Directed by Thanapon Maliwan
  • Starring Pairote "Mike B." Boongerd, Inthira Charoenpura, Russell Wong, Patharawarin Timkul
  • Released in Thai cinemas on October 8, 2009
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5

Skilled martial arts are stylized with moody slow-motion in The Sanctuary, an archaeological action drama starring stuntman-turned-leading man Pairote "Mike B" Boongerd and Hong Kong star Russell Wong.

A prologue goes back to 1897, when a U.S. diplomat is Siam, making a gift of a device -- fantastically advanced for that time -- that holographically projects Muay Thai boxing scenes. In return, Siam makes a gift of a set of three MacGuffins in form of jewel-encrusted vases, which are then promptly stolen by bandits. The palace's security chief goes after the treasure, and, in a fog-enshrouded forest, a fight ensues that sees the palace's man sacrifice his life and the treasure lost to the mists of time.

Fast forward 110 years or so, the descendants of that palace guard, twin-brother fighters (both Mike B.), are digging in the yard of a Buddhist temple and one of them unearths the holographic pendant and one of the vases. He's quickly tailed by bad guys, who chase him to a junkyard for a spectacular brawl atop a wobbly stack of derelict Toyotas.

Fast forward another couple of years, and the remaining twin brother Krit is working as a scam artist, selling fake antiquities to unsuspecting tourists. His ruse is exposed by archaeologist Fah (Inthira Charoenpura).

Meanwhile, an American mercenary (Russell Wong) hired by Burmese drug lord Wisa (Winston Omega) -- descendant of the 19th century "Poison Knife" bandits -- is digging in the temple for the remainder of the treasure.

Krit and Fah then team up to get the treasure back. What follows is a series of action scenes in which Mike B. pits his martial-arts skills against Wong's various henchmen in a variety of settings, from an apartment building in the city to a leaf-covered woodland scene that is reminiscent of a swordfighting duel in Zhang Yimou's Hero.

A rhythm develops in which Mike B. fights valiantly but is beaten and then nursed back to health with the aid of Fah and the herbal medicine of the helpful Buddhist monk Ram. And the holographic pendant proves to be a key for Krit to gain the skills he needs to finally defeat the bad guys.

The set up makes Wong a pretty ineffective villain, time and again leaving his underlings to deal with the problem of Krit and Fah and thinking they are dead, but each time Krit and Fah return.

It's not until the end that Mike B. and Wong square off for a contest of martial-arts against the stunning backdrop of cliffs and exposed rock on the banks of the Mekong.

As a leading man, Mike B. is serviceable, showing he can at least crack a smile -- a bit more diverse than Thailand's top martial arts star, Mr. Serious, Tony Jaa. And Mike B.'s athleticism and balletic acrobatics might be close to equal of Jaa, but it's hard to tell with the slow-motion stylization deployed during the action scenes. Framing, for the most part, is done in such a manner that you can tell there is real fighting going on, so that's a plus.

Mike B. was a stuntman on Tony Jaa's Ong-Bak, making him another branch on the family tree of Thai action cinema that springs from Jaa's mentor Panna Rittikrai, whose early B-grade action efforts were directed by Chartchai Maliwan. It's Chartchai's son Thanapon who directs The Sanctuary.

Wong, with his slicked-back hair and white tropical-weight suits, comes off as a bit of a dandy, but he delivers his lines with such smoothness and self-assured efficiency, it's hard not to admire the guy, especially when he finally deigns to get his white patent-leather shoes muddy in the final fight with Mike B.

Key among the supporting players is Bangkok-based German actor Erik Markus Schuetz -- another connection to Ong-Bak. He plays Gary, a hard-hitting brute who's one of Wong's chief enforcers.

The exposition in between the action is also sparked by enjoyable performances and even a girlfight between the two veteran Thai actresses -- Inthira Charoenpura (Nang Nak, Naresuan II) and Pathawarin Timkul (1999's Bangkok Dangerous, Jan Dara).

May Pathawarin, who's trained as a dancer, looks like she's having an especially good time vamping it up in an action role as Wong's deadly gun moll, which requires her to kick, throw knives, blow stuff up and have sex.

For its run in Thai cinemas, which will likely be all too fleeting, The Sanctuary (Thai title: สามพันโบก, Sam Phan Bok or loosely "3,000 treasures") was screened in a mixed Thai and English soundtrack -- Thai characters speak Thai for the most part and the foreigners speak English. Perhaps if it's sold overseas all the parts will be dubbed in English.

The Thai title refers to Sam Phan Bok Canyon, the stunning sandstone canyon backdrop for the finale fight scene. It's in Ubon Ratchathani, on the Mekong River.

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