My father perhaps had a less-than-inspired way of describing how he felt about watching films of the wuxia genre.
“Aww, it’s stupid,” he would say. “They’re too busy flying around in trees and swinging swords around than there is actual fighting.”
You may or may not have guessed, but he was talking about when we both saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it was first released on DVD. It was the late 90s, and the mainstream release of the film not only saw its nomination for multiple Academy Awards, but also set a precedent for the popularisation of visually beautiful, stylised martial art films among western audiences – and most of these being wholly or partially influenced by wuxia.
The modern wuxia brand was on the rise, and the stunning special effects characteristic of these films also inspired martial art scenes for Hollywood action blockbusters like The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels.
But like the genre calls for, wuxia films were known to be on the more whimsical, artistic side of filmmaking, often depicting heroes and warriors of ancient China with supernatural powers. A far cry from the grittier martial art film counterparts, which place more emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and fast-paced action. Diehard martial arts fans were therefore given a much more different viewing experience when they sat down to watch a modern wuxia film for the first time.
This didn’t mean that the genre lacked in entertainment value. Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers and one of my favourite films, Hero, are examples from recent past of what I personally regard as exceptional modern wuxia films. Many more have enjoyed overall positive reviews and critical acclaim worldwide.
Yet riding on the backs of these successes, others proved to be less than impressive, and even some of the latest films to roll off the wuxia assembly line failed to live up to audience expectations. They were just considered as mere reproductions with wire work, wigs and swordplay.
And for the a-typical martial arts movie, there was little opportunity to watch a memorable one, as every other action film was caught up in the CGI craze taking the industry by storm. So naturally, there was a noticeable lull in enthusiasm for the martial arts genre towards the end of the century, with many audiences gravitating towards underwhelmed sentiments about the “fake” combat scenes and action elements saturated in computer graphics.
Then enter Tony Jaa.
Regarded as the new kid on the block (despite years of competitive fighting and work as a stuntman) Tony’s break out role as a leading man (and in a low-budget, Thai martial arts film no less) served as a breath of fresh air for action cinema.
The 2003 film Ong Bak became the vehicle that not only launched Tony’s film career, but brought muay boran into the martial arts movie arena. While muay thai had already been introduced to western audiences back when Kickboxer (1989) and The Quest (1996) graced our screens, the fight scenes in Ong Bank demonstrated how devastating muay thai’s originating style can be.
Ong Bak served as a revitalising throwback to when martial arts movies were as authentic as they came before they reached post-production. The raw, hard-hitting action and bone-crunching fight scenes were thrilling and breathtaking, drawing the likes of both the martial arts movie purist and those uninitiated to the genre.
The best part of it all was that the showcase of skill and devastating ability was all real, and it made people sit up and pay attention.
Moves like Tony’s scorpion kick (a reverse hook kick), climbing elbow (climbing up onto your opponent to deliver an elbow to the crown of the head), and what is known as “pushing the elephant” (when you quite literally push the weight in your leg in an arc motion before swinging your knee into your opponent’s face), would leave a moviegoer speechless.
And it was with this that the then 27-year-old arguably gave the martial arts film genre a much-needed shot of adrenaline.
Coming from a mere $1 million budget, Ong Bak cleaned up in the domestic and international box offices, reaping more than $20 million worldwide. Tony would then go on to make several more amazing muay thai films with exceptional direction and fight choreography, such as two more Ong Bak sequels and 2005 cult hit The Protector.
But it was his work on the original Ong Bak that set the wheels in motion for up-and-coming martial artists hailing from other south east-Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam looking to also pay homage to their indigenous styles in domestically-produced films.
Whether it was in a bid to contend with emerging talent, in response to the reinvigorated demand for (less artsy, more energised) martial arts cinema, or through a fuelling of fresh inspiration, the powerful engine that is east-Asian cinema once again began churning out films returning to the well-loved, back-to-basics martial arts genre.
This may have come full circle in its own time, but it may not have come sooner had it not have been for a much-needed catalyst – the cinematic breakthrough that was Tony Jaa and Ong Bak.