In Tom Yum Goong (2005; TYG) aka The Protector, Tony Jaa wanted to show his passion for elephants, as he plays elephant-protector Khan, who with a heavy heart and armed with the courage and fighting abilities of the Jaturungs, travels to Australia to rescue two prized elephants that were intended to be gifts for the King of Thailand.
Historically, elephants in Thailand were held in high esteem as vividly depicted in art and cinema with Siam’s greatest leaders riding atop these towering creatures and charging into battle against Burmese invaders. There’s a scene in Tom Yum Goong where a painting comes to life that featured battling Jaturungkabart soldiers, the impetus behind Tom Yum Goong‘s fights.
The Jaturung warriors were the guardians of the feet of the elephants that the King rode on and their sole responsibility was to prevent enemies from harming the elephant’s feet, because if the feet were injured, the King would fall, die, battle over. The Jaturungs excelled in using the shield and sword, and Muay Boran, as their fighting techniques encompassed broad sweeping attacks as well as wide circular slashing maneuvers.
Tony Jaa once shared with me that the fights in Tom Yum Goong were more aggressive than Ong Bak, and used elements of elephant movements combined with Muay Thai and tried to reflect on how an elephant used their trunk and feet to catch, throw and break trees.
He explained, “There’s an ancient Muay Boran skill called elephant destroys the building where the elephant comes from below and picks up the building. When doing that ancient skill, one must first show respect to the King, then to the elephant. Some even worship the tusk’s movements. For Tom Yum Goong, I added in my own artistic flair to make the moves more interesting, unique, elegant and stylish.”
Tony Jaa also wanted to do something new, a fight partially drawn from two films, Timecode (2000), a film composed of four continuous 93-minute takes, shot simultaneously and shown on the screen at the same time; and Russian Ark (2002), where a steadicam follows the main character in a museum in one uninterrupted 96-minute shot.
Tony Jaa related, “The idea was born to do a four-minute fight sequence shot in one continuous take in a multi-floored restaurant. Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (1978) where Bruce goes up flights of stairs and fights on each floor was the inspiration.”
Each of the six floors were split into teams of stuntmen that were supposed to attack Jaa at the right moments. Of course in fight scenes where timing is everything, sometimes the clock didn’t strike midnight. They did eight takes, two a day, and had to change one of the steadicam operators because he couldn’t keep up with Jaa running up the stairs.
He reminisced, “In one take everything was perfect up until the third level and just as I threw out one of the stunt guys, the second team didn’t come out in time so we had to cut. In another take, everything was fine until the last and final team of attackers…we ran out of film. It was frustrating but worth it.”
Set in 1431, Thailand, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (0B-2) is about warrior Tien (Jaa) avenging the death of his parents at the hands of slave traders and Lord Rajasena.
The fights in Ong Bak were a unique highly stylized blend of modern Muay Thai with the delicate beauty and ferocious power of ancient Muay Boran and Muay Kodchasarn.
Jaa noted that Ong Bak 2‘s fights were initially modeled after a short film he and his mentor Panna Rittikrai made earlier, Venomous Man. The intention of movie was to combine martial arts from Thailand, China, Japan, Korea and other nations. Jaa then practiced Chaiya, Korat and Lopburi styles of Thai boxing as well as kung fu, ninjutsu and taifudo (a unique combination of aikido, kung fu, judo and Muay Thai). They also melted in the philosophies and spirits of each style.
In the interim, as Jaa learned khon Thai dancing, he wondered how to combine khon with martial arts recalling, “When we watched workshop tapes, we saw the energies of both forces…it was strange and fascinating. While visiting carvings and sculptures at ancient sites, I saw rock sculptures of the monkey king Hanuman from the Ramayana grappling, and carvings of Rama and Lakshman fighting Ravan and the demons, and depictions of giant serpents and garudas. From this I invented a new fight style just for Ong Bak 2/Ong Bak 3 and called it natayuth (nata means dancing, yuth means fighting), the application of dancing moving to combat, which requires conscience, concentration, and intellect to perform. Of course we also had fights using Muay Thai, samurai, and Thai swords and pole skills.”
Khon Thai dance is a style of stage dance drama performed by non speaking dancers who convey their characters’ emotions through stylized movement, and the relevant storytelling and expositions are told by a chorus positioned off to one side of the stage.
The most popular khon story is the Ramakien, a Thai version of the ancient Hindu epic story of the Ramayana, an enchanting tale of undying love and loyalty in which the hero Ram (aka Ramayan) and his brother Lakshaman seek Hanuman to help them rescue Ram’s wife Seta from the clutches of the dastardly King Ravan. The garuda is large mythical bird-like creature that symbolizes speed, bravery, martial power and violence. It’s these virtues combined with the philosophies and spirits of the other martial arts he practiced in preparation for the film that Jaa wanted to bring out in his character Tien.
By the time he finished Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong, Ong Bak 2 and 3, Jaa had accomplished the four things he wanted to do with his films similar to his four idols: he had the prowess and became a Thai cultural identity-creating icon like Bruce Lee to China; had the fight choreography and stunt guts of Jackie Chan; developed a unique Thai martial arts stylism as Jet Li did for his cinematic version of wushu; and had become more famous in Thailand and the world than his mentor Phanna.