The Wild Bunch: A Brief Overview Of Thai Action Films

Early days and the 1960s Thai cinema has a history that reaches back more than eighty years. The first locally produced film was released in 1927. Early films were mostly melodramas with everything thrown in, and specific film genres were only established after a decade or two. One of the first action films was Supabburut Sua Thai (1949). With an indicative title ( Supabburut means “gentleman” and Suameans “tiger” or “bandit”), the film introduced an enduring theme in the Thai action genre - a rural goodman- turned-outlaw hero fights for justice or takes justice into his own hands. Another early milestone was Leb Krut. Released in 1957, it was based on a novel about an undercover police officer who assumes the identity of a notorious rogue to infiltrate an underworld organization aiming to seize control of Bangkok. It had elements of Cold War politics and anti-communism, most evidently in its superpowered evil villain of mysterious Manchurian origin. Following closely on its heels was Jao Nak-leng, the first of six highly successful Insee Daeng ( Red Eagle) films. The film was released in 1959 and featured Mitr Chaibancha, the country’s best-loved superstar, playing the role of a hard-drinking playboy who dons a red, eagle-shaped mask at night to fight crime. Throughout the 1960s the genre was dominated by two main kinds of films, one influenced by Hollywood westerns, the other by espionage thrillers and pulp crime novels. Their approach was generally right-wing and the content was unvarying. The heroes, whether grass roots men or suave spies, are patriotic types who sacrifice themselves, on the right side of the law or not, for the people and the country. The 1970s The early era ended dramatically with the tragic, untimely death of its iconic star. Although he had played every type of role in some 300 films, Mitr Chaibancha was first and foremost an action star. In late 1970, while shooting a stunt for the final scene of Insee Thong, his last film in the Red Eagleseries, he lost his grip hanging from a helicopter and fell hundreds of feet to his death. The sudden loss was a shocked, and it signified a change. It prompted filmmakers to find new faces, try new things, and put more effort into improving existing formulas. The most notable action filmmaker was Chalong Pakdivijit, later known outside the country as P. Chalong or Philip Chalong. A veteran who started working as a cinematographer in 1950, Chalong shot the remake of Leb Krut in 1968 and made his directorial debut that year with Jao Insee, one of the films in the Mitr Chaibancha Red Eagle series. His big break came in 1973 when Gold (aka S.T.A.B.), a violent action film about a commando team looking for a huge cache of stolen gold in Vietnam, became the first Thai film to be widely sold to international markets. The strategy was simple - make a good-looking film with large budget, put in copious sex and violence and use Hollywood or internationally known actors to attract buyers. In Gold, Greg Morris from the Mission ImpossibleTV series was cast alongside Thai stars Sombat Methanee, Krung Srivilai, and Vietnamese beauty Tham Thuy Hang. The film was a phenomenal success locally and, though considered only a B-grade actioner in most markets outside the Asia Pacific region, made a profit internationally. Chalong followed the same route well into the 1990s with films like H-Bomb (aka The Great Friday, 1975, with Chris Mitchum and Olivia Hussey), Gold Raiders (1983, with Robert Ginty), The Lost Idol (1990, with Eric Estrada) and In Gold We Trust(1992, with Jan-Michael Vincent). The majority of Thai action films in the 1970s were not affected by Chalong’s success. Most films were still made with low budgets and targeted at local audiences, especially the large and growing population in the rural areas. There was no apparent need for action filmmakers to expand into unfamiliar territories. From the mid-1960s onwards, Spaghetti westerns had become much more popular in Thailand than their Hollywood counterparts. Their influence on Thai cinema, however, was much more evident in the 1970s, when more action films were set in the rural areas. Arguably, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) was the film that started it all. But smaller films with a simpler and more comedic approach, like A Pistol For Ringo(1965), Django (1966), and They Call Me Trinity (1971) reached wider audiences in the countryside through outdoor travelling shows. They made Italian leading men like Giuliano Gemma (aka Montgomery Wood), Franco Nero, and Terence Hill as big as Clint Eastwood. Even Spanish supporting actor Fernando Sancho became a star. Borrowing gimmicks from Spaghetti westerns in an attempt to please the same audiences did not mean that Thai action films were less popular in their own country. It was rather, a case of finding a more relevant and suitable source of inspiration. In retrospect, we can see that Thai action films had actually adopted and adapted the style of Hollywood westerns since Supabburut Sua Thai in 1949. Like Spaghetti westerns, though for different reasons, these adaptations were considered inferior to their American models. Most of the Thai films used 16 mm color reversal film stock that gave them the unique look of high contrast and over-saturated colour. Decades later, this look was beautifully recreated in Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears Of The Black Tiger (2000), a festival favourite and a celebrated tribute to the “Thai westerns” of a long-gone era. Even closer to home - and sharing the same values as Thai action - were Hong Kong and Taiwan wuxiaand martial arts films, like Shaw Brothers’ One-Armed Swordsman(Chang Cheh, 1967). This had been popular in Thailand since the late-1960s. Emphasising this close relationship, Mitr Chaibancha even went to Hong Kong to play in three wuxiafilms in his last year, though only one was finished and shown after his death1. The similarities with Hong Kong action films were not that noticeable. The plot lines were similar, as they included heroes who fought for justice or took revenge against overwhelmingly powerful enemies. But Thai westerns had more in common with Spaghetti westerns than martial arts films did with Hong Kong films. The fighting in Thai action films was at best undistinguished when compared to their Hong Kong counterparts. But some filmmakers did about this situation. Most important among them was actor-turned-director Khom Arkdej (aka Kom Akadet), who had made his mark in the action genre in the mid 1970s. He reached his creative peak in late 1970s and early 1980s, beginning with the kung fuinspired In The Name Of The Tiger ( Sua Phukao) in 1979. The film is a tense actioner about a lone Hmong who, with only the help of a knife-throwing girl, has to fight an army of Lahu hunters after losing his wife in a hill tribe conflict. The film was one of the first to demonstrate that elaborate stunt work and imaginatively choreographed fight scenes were two essentials in creating a really stunning action flick. The 1980s and 1990s Apart from the works of Chalong Pakdivijit and Khom Arkdej, who continued along the same path as in the 1970s, the action genre in the 1980s was largely unmemorable. One exception - these were the formative years in the film business for the country’s future ace fight choreographer, Panna Rittikrai. Born in the North-Eastern province of Khon Kaen, Panna grew up watching the outdoor action movies of Mitr Chaibancha. He later became intrigued by the Hong Kong martial arts superstars, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. He began as a physical education college graduate and self-taught martial arts expert with special admiration for Sua Phukao. He left his hometown to work with Khom Arkdej in Bangkok for three years as a physical trainer for actors, and also appeared in some of the most daring stunts ever put on the screen at that time. After that, he returned to Khon Kaen and formed his own stunt team. He was determined to forge a new style of low-budget action films which emphasised pure stunt work. Panna’s move reflected a situation that became clearer from the mid-1980s on. After two prosperous decades, Thai action cinema’s popularity was waning. The action film output, which was around a third of the approximately 100 Thai films produced and released each year, was deceptive. In fact, cinemagoers in Bangkok had turned their backs on the genre. With few exceptions, action films were released only in suburban theatres and disappeared quickly to play outdoors in the countryside. The main reason for the decline was the low-budget routines that dominated the 1970s. Action stunts were so repetitive that they were later jokingly referred to as “bomb the mountains, burn the cottages” kind of films. These films had their charms, but even the best of them are now unknown to the world outside. They look dated, and are sadly rejected by more sophisticated cinemagoers. Panna’s Born To Fight ( Kerd Ma Lui), released in 1983, was the first of some 50 films he would go on to produce, direct, and act in over ten years. These were all B-movies aimed at (declining) rural audiences. Some were made with his own money, others for companies, but all used his stunt team. The fact that they were made by a community of action aficionados was not considered important and they were simply overlooked at the time. But years later, some audiences would watch them on VCD and notice the future superstar and martial arts sensation Tony Jaa doing stunts - or even playing a villain. After multiplex theaters were introduced in 1994, the whole Thai film industry was in serious danger of being wiped out by Hollywood and television. In 1997 - the first year the number of Thai films released dropped below 20 - B-grade action movies disappeared completely from the theaters. The situation for the action genre and the industry was precarious. The 2000s In the new millennium, recovery was slow though not without good signs. Nonzee Nimibutr’s successful Dang Bireley’s And The Young Gangsters (1997) and Thanit Jitnukul’s Bang Rajan (2000) were well-made action films, although they failed to generate a change in fortune for the genre. Neither was really a shot in the arm for genre films. That was provided in 2003 by Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong Bak, a film which performed much better than anyone had expected. The film prompted many questions. Why had no film used Thai martial arts so impressively before? Where had Thai action cinema been hiding all these years? Considering Muay Thai has been around for as long as the nation itself, it’s understandable why such questions should be asked. The best answer is another question: how many real martial arts stars had emerged anywhere since the heyday of Jackie Chan? A star of his calibre was - and still is - hard to find. The process takes time and needs some luck. Tony Jaa was 27 when the world-wide success of Ong Bakmade him famous. Before that, he had spent 12 years working hard, bracing himself for success under his mentor Panna Rittikrai. The way Panna worked was to bring the best out of his protégé, and to develop him in the mold of his heroes, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Jaa was made to kick harder, leap higher and stay in the air longer. Prachya, a director with a music video background, decided that Jaa was special but still not distinguished enough in his own right to launch an action revolution. He realised that by using ancient Muay Thai, he could create something truly different. Muay Thai had been used in films before. Some earlier films produced and directed by Khom Arkdej in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as some of Panna’s B-movies, are worth checking out for their use of the form. But before Ong Bak, no film had shown why it was one of the world’s most thrilling fighting forms. Some think that’s because most Thai action films were meant for local audiences who were considered to be too familiar with Muay Thai to be excited by it. There was also the question of vision. Ong Bakwas designed to both open the eyes of outsiders and remind the Thai people to “take a look at what we have”. With the phenomenal work of Jaa as actor and Panna as fight choreographer, the film succeeded in both aims. Since 2003, the year of Ong Bak, the Thai film industry has recovered. The annual number of films released has now risen to around 40 to 50. The action genre, now revived, has also been on the rise. One problem is that there seems to be no room for medium- or small-scale films. Each action film has to be bigger than the one before, so it takes longer to finish. The Ong Bak team, working together and separately, has only completed four more martial arts films. Panna remade his Born To Fight in 2004 and introduced Dan Chupong Changproong as the next martial arts hero. Prachya directed Tom-Yum-Goong, in 2005 and went on to make Chocolate, introducing Jeeja Yanin Wismitanant as the female answer to Tony Jaa, in 2008. In the same year, Jaa made his directorial debut with Ong Bak 2. It’s obvious that the focus of recent Thai action cinema has been on martial arts, an area yet to be fully explored. This alone makes the films different from the majority of works produced in the 1960s and the 1970s. It remains to be seen how long it will take to reach new heights after Ong Bak. Indeed, will such heights ever be scaled again? Nowadays one can’t help but feel that there is too little variety and the genre now seems to depend too much on Tony Jaa. He is a skilled and versatile martial artist, but as an actor he is a minimalist - the ultimate no-nonsense action hero. This may not be a problem as long as he sticks to playing intense heroes - which he may have to, at least for the next five years. Suthakorn Santithawat is a former film critic; director of Kwan-Riam [2001]; current executive member of the Thai Film Directors Association and also working as a documentary producer and film subtitler. NOTE 1. Hooded Swordsman (1971, Cheung Lok Ping) aka Flyer And Magic Sword- in Romeo and Juliet fashion, the son and daughter of two families feuding over a salt mine, fall in love. The film also featured Ling Fan, Tin Yau and well-known player of villains Sek Kin. There were two versions of the film, one with Petchara Chauwarat as the daughter, and the other with Ling Fan in the role. Petchara and Mitr were a popular pair at the Thai box office, making some 150 films together including the classic Magical Love Of The Countryside ( Monrak luk thung) . The martial arts choreographer was Liu Jialiang (aka Lau Kar-leung) who fulfilled the same role in Duel Of Fists (Chang Cheh, 1971) where David Chiang journeys to Thailand to find his Thai-boxing half brother, Ti Lung. By the end of the 1970s Liu would become one of Hong Kong’s greatest martial arts directors.
Suthakorn Antithawat