It’s time for yet another edifying plunge into the depths of Netflix Watch Instantly, and this time out, the Netflix Streaming Safari is taking you to Thailand! Grouped under “Southeast Asia” the Thai offerings from Netflix Instant Watch are a gumbo of trashy action, cheap thrills, and break-dancing drunk girls kicking you in the face. Nothing goes better with this list than a six-pack and some dried squid, so get drinking, get chomping, and get watching, as the Netflix Streaming Safari heads to the Land of Smiles!
CHOCOLATE (2008) – Jeeja Yanin is Thailand’s fighting female action star, and this is her debut film. That’s the first point in its favor. The second point: it’s a super-serious action movie in which Jeeja plays an autistic kid who loves chocolate and has the ability to perfectly mimic any martial art she sees, like a rowdy, punch-throwing Rain Man, and you have what might be the best exploitation movie of the 2000′s. This is the kind of movie that just keeps upping the stakes in every scene, good taste be damned, and by the time they bring out a fighter to take her down, and he’s autistic too…well, that’s when you should be on your sixteenth beer.
DORM (2006) - if there’s one thing that Asia has plenty of, it’s knock-offs of THE RING, so why on earth does anyone want to watch yet another Asian ghost movie, especially one from Thailand which has become something of the capital for crap RING cash-ins? Well, the fact that this film won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival is one reason. DORM has a lot in common with Guillermo del Toro’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE only it’s less arthouse and more multiplex: both movies are ghost stories set in a boy’s boarding school that uses the ghost as a screen on which childhood traumas are projected and amplified. The child actors are uniformly terrific, and while I didn’t find it scary, I found it really, really moving. (read a longer review)
ONG BAK (2003) – the Thai action movie that launched a thousand imitators, it was followed by TOM YUN GOONG (aka THE PROTECTOR), ONG BAK 2, and ONG BAK 3, but the original is still the best. The story is no more nor less than what you need, but the movie features far more stunts and awesome chases than the sequels (which focus solely on martial arts), and the fights are way better designed. Sure, you see the same stuntman over and over again in different cheap wigs. Sure Tony Jaa has about as much charisma as a glass of water, sure the characters are pretty much stamped out of a press, but just try to get past the tree-climbing, hard-fall-taking, elbowing-you-in-the-face opening sequence and not keep watching until the last skull is cracked and the end credits roll. The biggest surprise about ONG BAK is just how inferior the sequels are.
POWER KIDS (2009) - speaking of child actors, um, holy crap!?!? POWER KIDS is a childsploitation action flick that is fast, cheap, and totally out of control. If you’ve ever wanted to see a bunch of child actors thrown face-first through plate-glass windows, this DIE HARD meets THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG head-spinner is for you. If you loved DEATH WISH 3, but thought it should be performed by kids doing muay thai instead of Charlie Bronson shooting punks, POWER KIDS will sort you out.
RAGING PHOENIX (2009) – if you liked Jeeja Yanin in CHOCOLATE you’re going to love her in RAGING PHOENIX. Abducted by a bunch of black market perfumiers (who kidnap her via pogo stick!), Jeeja is slated to have her unique scent turned into a creepy signature scent before she’s rescued by a gang of four beach bums called Dog Shit, Pig Shit, Sanim, and Bull Shit, who teach her drunken b-boy breakdancing muay thai. That is all you need to know. Everything else is just words.
BKO: BANGKOK KNOCK-OUT (2010) – this exploitation stunt-tacular features some of the best stuntmen and women unleashing muay thai, capoeira, dirt bike fu, shovel beatdowns, fights on fire, fights in the water, fights under trucks, fights in mid-air, and two back-to-back climactic smackdowns in the service of a story about a group of aspiring stuntmen who can’t wait to go Hollywood. Unfortunately, the world has other plans. Plans like drugging them, dropping them into a warehouse populated by psychotic murderers, and betting on the outcome of the ensuing life-or-death struggle. While the first 20 minutes are a bit slow (yawn - story) once it gets pumping, this is non-stop insanity, including a great turn from Panna Rittikrai as an asthmatic stone cold killer. Rittikrai is the stunt choreographer genius behind Jeeja Yanin’s career, POWER KIDS, Tony Jaa’s career, and this film, and it’s a lot of fun to see the folks who are usually behind the scenes step out in front of the cameras and raise holy hell.
DYNAMITE WARRIOR (2006) – Zooming off the screen like one of its wooden rockets, DYNAMITE WARRIOR feels like the kind of fast, funny, frenetic, nonstop, action throwdowns that came out of Hong Kong in the early 90’s. Dan Chupong (a far more charismatic alternative to Tony Jaa) stars as a masked thief who flies through the air on homemade rockets and cracks skulls with Mach 3 elbow drops, looking for the tattooed man who killed his parents. Throw in some wizards, an evil prince with an awesome victory dance, a berserk giant, and jaw-dropping action choreography by Panna Rittikrai (see BKO: BANGKOK KNOCKOUT) and you’ve got a summer blockbuster that’ll boil your brains like hot lava.
TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER (2000) – what a bummer. Wisit Sasantieng’s amazing debut movie is a candy-colored, retro homage/parody/deconstruction/re-enactment of Thai action movies of the 60′s, and it is so joyous, gorgeous, impeccably staged, and smartly written that you can’t watch more than five minutes without breaking into a smile. Unfortunately, the transfer provided by Miramax to Netflix looks horrible, the sound is muted and fuzzy, and the colors are desaturated, sort of robbing the movie of its entire reason for existing in the first place. Find a version somewhere else, because the Netflix version will harsh your buzz.
BODYGUARD (2004) - The lowest common denominator just got lower! This Thai action comedy smells like Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow at his finest. Panna Rittikrai (BKO and POWER KIDS and CHOCOLATE and ONG BAK) directs comedy weirdo, Mum Jokmok, in this action movie send-up crammed full of ridiculous stunts, with Mum Jokmok playing a stone-faced bodyguard protecting his client from an army of evil assassins. Bristling with jaw-dropping weirdness, naked chase scenes, and some really funny beatdowns it also features a cameo performance by Tony Jaa (ONG BAK). BODYGUARD 2 is also on Instant Watch, but I prefer the surreal, handmade, slightly shabby first installment.
BANG RAJAN (2000) - unleash the war buffaloes! In 1767, Thailand was about to be over-run by a massive invading army of Burmese warriors. The only thing in their way was the tiny village of Bang Rajan, home to about 400 people. And yet Bang Rajan held off the thousands strong Burmese army for five months, ultimately being destroyed in the process. Although the transfer on Netflix Instant is a bit dark, this film is probably one of the greatest fist-pumping, totally enjoyable, medieval war movies out there, a savvy blend of SEVEN SAMURAI, the legend of the Alamo, and any other movie or historical event where a few brave men and women held off a superior force. Rated ten out of ten Viking warriors!
KING NARESUAN 1 & KING NARESUAN 2 – Release the elephants of war!!! The Old and New Testament of Thailand, KING NARESUAN 1 & 2 are the biggest all-time blockbusters ever released in Thailand, telling the story of King Naresuan the Great (also known as the Black Prince), the warrior king who protected Thailand from the Burmese and who conquered more territory than any other Thai king before or since. Directed by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, 19th in line for the Thai throne, the first KING NARESUAN movie is the Genesis and Exodus of Thailand, while KING NARESUAN 2 is like the first four Gospels, telling the tale of how King Naresuan founded modern day Thailand and liberated it from Burma in the sixteenth century. While there are no good guys or bad guys in these two movies, since everyone is depicted as a statesman and politician pursuing an imperial destiny rather than a superhero or an archfiend, there are also no subversive surprises. The NARESUAN movies are populist entertainment at its best. Will you learn something new about the human heart? Not so much. Will your blood get pumping, your heart get pounding and your grin split your face in half? Hell, yes.
Because there’s so much historical background, because they’re so huge, and because they were directed by an actual member of the Thai royal family, I’m giving these movies a lot of room so you can understand why they are so gobsmackingly great. Also, please ignore the fact that Netflix has them retitled as KINGDOM OF WAR 1 & 2. That is a very stupid name and I will not be saying it again.
Part 1, also called “Hostage of Hongsawadee,” finds the tiny kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern day Thailand) invaded by Hongsawadee (which later became Burma) and the seven-year-old Prince Naresuan handed over as a hostage to the Hongsawadee king in order to ensure his conquered country’s continued fealty. The Hongsawadee king takes a liking to this kid and has him trained in the arts of war, language, religion and politics. Subconsciously, he seems to know that he’s providing his eventual destroyer with all the weapons he’ll one day need to leave Burma and turn Thailand into a power to be reckoned with. This epic opener chronicles Prince Naresuan’s childhood in Burma, the intricate political maneuvering, hostage exchanges, and court intrigues that saw the rise of Hongsawadee as a military power capable of crushing all opposition and the eventual return of Prince Naresuan to Thailand. It’s a movie capable of switching from the super-enormous epic to the human-sized portrait in a single breath, and the lush sets and costumes provide an endless parade of eye candy.
Part 2, aka “The Reclamation of Soveriengty,” finds Prince Naresuan now governor of the capital of Ayutthaya and slowly forming a ragtag coalition of loyal provinces. But then the Hongsawadee king who raised him dies and the politics heat up until Prince Naresuan is backed into a corner by the hostile successors to the Hongsawadee throne. It all hits critical mass and the politics implode into a supernova of 17th Century warfare, treating us to a 90 minute climax that is a perfect storm of battles featuring a band of women warriors, hurled axes, enormous batteries of roaring canons and charging war elephants unleashed in an orgy of destruction, heroism, tragedy, and sacrifice.
The director is a member of Thailand’s royal family and these two movies, especially when taken together, transport audiences to another planet where they see the world through Thai eyes. Not only are the advanced technical values and slick skills of Thai filmmakers on full, impressive display, but these epics are a supremely entertaining introduction to Thailand’s attitude towards its history and its royalty, who are revered practically as gods. If you’ve ever thrilled to GUNGA DIN or if you have a thing for glittering royal intrigue on gilded, arena-sized sets, then these two movies are going to taste like a five and a half hour binge on the glossiest candy imaginable. You could go see imaginary wars and battles fought by digital puppets in movies like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, or you could see real flesh and blood people use six-foot-long rifles to recreate the bloody, stirring battles that shaped the world in which we live.