“Never be afraid to fail. Failure is only a stepping stone to improvement. Never be overconfident because that will block your improvement.”
I’ve been a big Tony Jaa fan ever since I saw Ong-bak in 2003.
Muay Thai had never been so fully represented in martial arts films and in Tony Jaa, the style found a representative who did for Muay Thai what Steven Seagal did for Akido in Above the Law. He mythologized it and demonstrated its capacity for badassery and injected high levels of showmanship.
Jaa went further through the addition of various strains of showy techniques from other arts (TKD) and even Jacky Chan-style acrobatics and “fun” fighting choreography.
Japanom Yeerum (Tony Jaa) was born in Thailand in 1976 to parents who herded elephants for a living.
He watched martial arts movies as a kid and was a fan of the big three: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. He studied martial arts locally and then eventually won a scholarship to a Physical Education College, Thailand where he studied Muay Thai, Wushu, Judo and Tae Kwan Do.
His first film was as a stuntman on a local film in 1994, which led to him getting stunt work on a Western movie filmed in Thailand, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997).
‘Ong’ means a Buddha Image. ‘Bak’ (verb) or ‘Roi Bak’ (noun) means a scar or mark from being cut by sharp weapons. There is a big scar on the face of Buddha Image in the movie. So “Ong Bak” means scarred Buddha Image. In the legend of this village in the film, this Buddha Image was stolen by Burmese soldiers in ancient times. I local Thai hero and Muay Thai master fought the Burmese and brought the Buddha Image back to the village. When the Thai hero fought the Burmese, they cut him in the face with a sword, but the wound appeared on the statue’s face and the hero was unharmed.
Tony Jaa, unfortunately, has only made a few movies in the 12 years since Ong-bak.
This led to a somewhat legendary meltdown reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, where he disappeared into the jungle for two months. The movie was way over schedule and way over budget. The producers interceded, fired him as director and they ended up taking the tons of footage, rewriting it, and splitting it in two, creating Ong-bak 2 and Ong-bak 3 , neither of which did very well at the box office since they basically made very little sense.
There are still some action gems in there, but you have to suffer to find them – better to get the highlights off Youtube.
There are many stories about what happened, from Jaa going megalomaniacal to his family and unscrupulous producers hamstringing him.
PS You really have to say that in the case of movie stars from Hong Kong and Thailand, you need to give a lot of props to their team of stuntmen, who are highly skilled and pretty clearing willing to take a beating for their movies. For every injury Jackie Chan caught on his movies, you should pencil in 5 stuntmen. I’m pretty sure the same goes for these crazy Thai movies like Ong Bak and The Raid.
In the US, they have to do those stunts with CGI – in the East, they do them with tough stuntmen who have no medical insurance.