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FTT professor Magnon-Park reflects on ‘Ong-Bak’ and martial arts

Brian Doxtader | Friday, April 8, 2005

Aaron Magnon-Park is a professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. Magnon-Park teaches film and television aesthetics, film history, pan-Asian cinema and international action cinema. He is currently working on research projects on the transnational dimensions of the Hong Kong action cinema and the discourse of han [everlasting woe] in contemporary Korean cinema.

Q: What are your overall impressions of “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior”?A: I think it’s a phenomenal film. We’re used to martial arts extravaganzas coming primarily from Hong Kong. In some ways, due to the exodus of Hong Kong talent with the return of Hong Kong from a British colony to a special administrative region of mainland China, there’s a certain loss of quality of the action spunk that epitomized Hong Kong action as distinct and worthy of global recognition outside of the Hollywood tradition. Other national cinemas with stronger economic development such as Japan and South Korea would seem to be natural sites of resurgence, and in some ways there are examples of that. But when we go south to Thailand, it’s a country that is still developing and has a very distinct martial arts tradition – Muay Thai. In some ways, this film surpasses the martial legacy that has long been the domain of Hong Kong action cinema. Q: How does this film compare with a typical Hollywood action film?A: My hope is that students will see this film and re-engage with action cinema (through Asian action cinema) and will understand the inherent limitations of over-technologized Hollywood action cinema. In some ways, it’s the endless battle between a rich film industry and a poor film industry – rich and poor in terms of access to finances and latest technology. The Hollywood way is to pump more money into more technology, and that will create action, whereas in some ways the Asian film industry’s approach is one in which the human body has to deliver the action.Q: Why was this a film that was able to cross over into a more mainstream and global market?A: I think there’s a certain degree of investment and extra-financing that came into the film, along with savvy promotion of the film on the film festival circuit to the point that it reached a global audience, and (good for us in South Bend) two years down the line the possibility of seeing it here. The film had a limited release in the United States. There is also a tradition in the martial arts of trying to provide a new martial arts style, and so we can say that in Ong-Bak we have Muay Thai grounded as martial arts du jour.Q: What does Ong-Bak say about the future of Thai cinema?A: I expect the star (Tony Jaa) to continue having martial arts action cinema roles, perhaps even being invited to work in Hong Kong or the United States. And it will provide added finance capital for Thailand now that they’ve demonstrated an artistic look but commercial savviness and the quality of production values.Q: How does Tony Jaa fit within a particular tradition of action cinema stars?A: Bruce Lee was very nationalistic and ethnocentric, trying to demonstrate the power of Chinese kung fu. With [Ong-bak], there is no doubt that Muay Thai is identified very strongly with its national origins in Thailand. When Jaa has [one particular] fight, his opponent is verbally recognized as Burmese and promotes a Burmese approach to martial arts. Here also with Jaa, it is a form of authentic kung fu because of the creative and select process of bringing in the most cinematically significant or vibrant moves for fight sequences. From Jackie Chan we have the tradition of the cinematic technique of foregrounding that [he performed the stunts and hard-to-perform martial arts moves] without the use of harnesses or safety devices [by using] overlapping action, both double and triple. So in Ong-Bak we visually recognize the most physically demanding and life-threatening sequences when we see the event shot from two or three camera angles and shown in its full completion one after another. This creates a break from the linear narrative, it’s a disrupting device, but it really highlights the spectacular performance. Jet Li began martial arts training from an early age, [but has] a youthful appearance. So he shares a certain charisma with Jaa that is more pronounced than Lee or Chan. Jet Li in some ways signifies a complete amalgamation of the militant Chinese version of screen masculinity for China. Ong-Bak has created the same kind of image for many films to come that will continue to try to establish the same kind of cinematic signature for Jaa’s career. However, Jet Li does use wires (a form called “wire-fu”), whereas most of Jaa’s vertical leaps are done without the assistance of wires, so he’s like a gazelle. Scenes like those in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” use wires, and while you may not notice it on the first viewing, you can later register that technique.We also have a case where in foreign martial arts films, unlike the first kung fu invasion in the early seventies, where we get to hear the original language. It’s not dubbed into some kind of compromised English that in many ways undermines the thematic content and devolves into some kind of campiness or comedy that is not part of the original script.Q: Why is this film a good selection for the Asian Film Festival?A: That’s a complicated question. There are several issues that go into selection of films for a film festival. One of the most important aspects for us being in South Bend is that we are geographically isolated and not part of the regular film festival circuit. So while this film would be easily accessible in a major city, having it come here (especially in a 35 millimeter film print) would be almost impossible. This film was also chosen as a way to break out of the predictable realm of Asia. Far too often, we tend to focus on the far East, with China and Japan dominating. The notion of Asia has to be much larger. As a Thai film, “Ong-Bak” is part of southeast Asia. In the future we would love the possibility of bringing in a film from every country in Asia. What we’re trying to do with the film festival is start small, and demonstrate that there is critical demand on campus and within the community. In future evolutions of the film festival we would enlarge the selection of the films that we bring in and the guests that we bring in for screenings. Ultimately, there are some films that just need to be seen on the big screen in order to be fully appreciated, and “Ong-Bak” is one of them.