[The Udine Far East Film Festival celebrates its tenth edition this year. The lady friend and I rolled in to town last night and while we missed yesterday's screenings one of the late pictures was Muay Thai Chaiya, a film I've seen and greatly enjoyed previously, so I'm pulling my previous review forward here.]
Kongkiat Khomsiri's debut as a solo director after being part of the gang behind ultra-gorey Art of the Devil 2 will strike many as familiar on more than one level. Drawing on the tried and true story of three poor friends from the country drawn to the big city by the promise of fame and fortune only to be forced apart by forces outside their control, Muay Thai Chaiya follows one of the most popular structures in Asian action films - one drawn on earlier this year in Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers and prominent in kung fu and action films from the golden age onwards. Now, if Khmosiri has failed to do the story justice you could reasonably criticize the man for simply repeating what had come before but there's a very good reason why this particular structure keeps coming back - in good hands it produces remarkable results and Khomsiri's hands are sure enough and his story laced with just enough novel elements to keep things feeling fresh and vital throughout.
We begin the story with three young boys growing up in a remote fishing village. One of them is the son of a whore, one the son of a gambling addicted fisherman, the third the son of a famous boxing coach who teaches a rare variant of muay thai boxing - training that has propelled his elder son to local fame and growing national attention, thus inspiring the fierce loyalty of the three youngsters. Bonded together by a near fatal accident the three boys - Pao, Piak and Samor - train together daily until the financial failings of the local gym force Pao's father and boxing elder brother to move to Bangkok, leaving the three to fend for themselves at home. And fend they do, the hot headed Piak and cold tactician Pao boxing in underground matches on the local rubber plantations to eke out a hardscrabble existence until a match with a local prize fighter gives the trio the motivation they need to head to Bangkok in search of their own fame in the ring.
Now, boxing is a dirty sport everywhere in the world and the muay thai ring of 1970s boxing was no exception. Suspected of throwing a fight thanks to his unorthodox style, the flamboyant Piak is stripped of his license to fight and, accompanied by the loyal Samor, begins a career in underground fight clubs - a career that soon leads to the duo being recruited as armed heavies, and eventually hitmen, for a local gangster. Pao, for his part, stays on the straight and narrow, staying in school and drawing his father back into the trainer's role to guide his slow and steady rise through the ranks.
Now, the moment the trio splits, everyone in the audience knows where this is going to go. Piak's decline will be mirrored by Pao's ascension, the two played off of each other until finally, inevitably, they will meet in one final, bloody clash. And this is exactly what happens. As Pao ascends the rankings the pressure to throw fights grows until, finally, he draws the ire of Piak's boss and Piak is sent to kill his old friend just as he has killed countless other reluctant fighters by this point. This is the way these films work, what matters is how well the director pulls it off and Khomsiri does remarkably well.
Muay Thai Chaiya is an effective piece of film making for several reasons. First, it takes the time it needs to properly establish the relationships between the core trio, letting us get to know and care for these young fighters just as they care for each other. Second, Khomsiri is smart enough to base the split not on character flaws or weaknesses between the group but on the simple fact that they are poor and subject to forces outside of their control - the film plays as a tragedy that respects the initial set up and basic character of each of the youths throughout. Third, with the help of art director Wisit Sasanatieng - director of Tears of the Black Tiger, Citizen Dog and The Unseeable, which he directed from a script by Khomsiri - the film shows a remarkable attention to period detail. And, finally, the fights are played for crunching realism rather than gymnastic display. Though it contains a lot of fighting, some of it wildly stylized and bloody once Piak enters the underground rings, Muay Thai Chaiya never forgets that it is a serious character drama first and a fight film second. The fights fit within the story rather than the story being cobbled around them which gives everything an emotional kick to go along with the physical buzz that comes when Piak finally launches into a bloody rampage, sword in hand.
Thanks to the likes of Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai and Dan Chupong everyone is now well aware that Thailand can produce raw, physical spectacle with the best of them. Now, with Muay Thai Chaiya, we know that the nation can tell a believable story while doing it, too. What it may lack in raw spectacle when compared to the latest Tony Jaa opus the film makes up for with an emotional impact that lingers well beyond the final frame. Not a perfect film, but very highly recommended.