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When I first met Tony Jaa 17 years ago and asked him how did he develop his leaping abilities, I half-expected him to say something about the Big Boing Theory, instead he said, “Flower, Leaf.” Born in 1976, Jaa shared that during his childhood he was raised in a jungle-village that was in a Red zone, an area near the Thai-Cambodian border where wartime bombers daily unleashed their load and he’d be forced to run for cover.

What made those tumultuous times more bearable were the moments he spent with his two pet elephants Flower and Leaf. Every day since they were babies and Jaa was a child, Tony Jaa would take these pachyderms down to the river and leap up onto their backs then dive into the water. He did this every day for many years. As the elephants grew, so did Jaa and his leg strength. That was his foundation in martial arts…strong legs.

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Around the same time he was jumping up onto elephants, back in his village he would watch all the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films that were shown on outdoors screens, usually a large white sheet, when traveling projectionists came to the village. This is when he fell in love with martial arts movies and at age 10 decided to learn Muay Thai.

It wasn’t about the convenience of going to a local dojo, kung fu guan or a Muay Thai gym, he’d trek through the jungles from his home in Surin to a village called Maha Sarakham. By age 15 he began learning other martial arts and various martial weapons for eight hours/day under former Thai action film hero, the 30-year-old Panna Rittikrai.

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Inspired by Bruce Lee and influenced to do fight and stunts like Jackie Chan, in 1979, Phanna formed the P.P.N. Stunt Team (aka Muay Thai Stunt Team) and made his mark directing and starring in Gerd Ma Lui (1986; Born to Fight) where he also served as the  stunt and fight coordinator. This film introduced his patented use of full contact fights and trademark stunt where a fighter would leap up and death blow plummet down onto his opponent and ram the body through a  breakaway wooden floor or tattered table.

In many of his 50+ low budget films, the fights copied, up to budget allowances, just about everything Chan was doing from 1986-late ’90s, including having the fighters dress in the same contemporary costumes, and move and fight like the Hong Kong stuntmen.

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Inspired by the martial arts prowess and Chinese cultural identity-creating icon of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan’s fight choreography genius and derring-do, Jet Li‘s stylism and wanting to be a Thai film star like Phanna, Jaa focused on Muay Thai training as his new path.

Tony Jaa explained, “When I watched Bruce and felt his emotion and shear intensity, how can that not move you? Jackie’s amazing with his physical and gymnastic abilities and the guts it takes to do those stunts. I wanted to bring back that Hong Kong feeling, do all my own stunts for real and without wires or stunt doubles. Most importantly, I want to show the world the other sides of Muay Thai, a stylized way that most folks don’t know about.”

Tony Jaa in Ong Bak

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

And what are those things most folks don’t know about? To Westerners, Thai martial arts is Thai kickboxing, yet Muay Thai is not a martial art but a sport that has been around since 1930, its techniques being a watered down version of the lethal martial art Muay Boran, which comes from an even older version of Pahuyuth (systems of Thai martial arts) called Ling Lom (air monkey) that has its foundations in Krabi-Krabong. Although the ancient forms of Muay Thai are Buddhist in nature, the Ling-Lom aspect of Muay Boran has its foundation in the monkey god Hanuman, from the Hindu legend of Ramayana, where the fights were really re-enactments of the battling deities.

Thus similar to old kung fu films where the hero would yell out a skill name, practice it, then apply it while fighting, in Ong Bak, Jaa also shouts out technique names, performs them and uses them during combat…Hanuman being the most commonly hollered name.

Idea of Ong Bak

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

The idea of Ong Bak (2003), a film about young Thai warrior Ting (Jaa) who travels to Bangkok in search of the stolen head of a statue from his tiny rural village’s guardian Buddha, was born on the set of Jaa’s first big gig, being Robin Shou‘s stunt double on Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997).

Although returning the statue head to the village elders is as predictable as Bruce Lee eventually having to fight in his first film The Big Boss (1971; aka Fists of Fury), it’s the martial arts confrontations against giant, muscle bound, white farangs in illegal bare-knuckle fights that introduces the audience to visions of gut wrenching glee.

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

These acts of belligerence forced upon the unwitting Ting are quickly and intelligently counter-emotioned by director Prachya Pinkaew, as Ting has a delightful, gymnastic steeplechase through the cluttered back alleys of Bangkok. Yet perhaps the highlights of the film are not only Jaa’s bouts with the seething, meth-induced fits of pugilistic havoc by the film’s rabid epileptic adversary, Samin, but also Jaa’s outrageous stunts such as his deadly knee-drop strikes, elbows of fury, attack of the SUV and the far out fire kicks.

Tony Jaa said that although the SUV gag was the scariest, he really had to concentrate during the deserted gas station stunt where he poured gasoline on himself then did a jumping, aerial kick. He got burned pretty badly during the scene because once the pants caught on fire, the flames rapidly spread upwards and burnt his eyebrows, armpit hairs, eyelashes and nose. After a few more burning takes, they got it right. The major issue was that no one had done fire stunts before and so when he caught on fire nobody told him to get on the ground where the flames stay localized longer and thus easier to douse the flames. Instead he stayed on his feet and was moving around trying to put it out.

tony jaa ong bak
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

In regard to the fights, Tony Jaa described, “We spent a lot of time preparing the action fight sequences. Unlike Jackie, we just didn’t show up on set and do them, we worked on all the choreography for many months before shooting the film, to make sure we knew what we wanted to do ahead of time. All the fights and movements were trying to bring out certain aspects of Muay Baron, like the foot stomping, and hand and body posturing.”

Stay tuned for discussions on the martial arts influences behind Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector) then Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3, which were filmed simultaneously.

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