2006/Feb/05

Don't Try This at Home

I'm lazy today so here is an interesting article from the Bangkok Post on Panna Rittikrai, Thailand's B-movie king. This is the guy who choreographed the stunts in the recent Muay Thai inspired hit 'Om Bak'.

He once rammed a motorcycle head-on into a 10-wheel truck. He has jumped from cliffs, from five-storey buildings, from speeding vehicles. He's walked through fire. And here before me, Panna Rittikrai, 43, is, yes, alive, breathing, smiling, confessing that people call him a sado-masochist.

"I want to push the limits of the human body, to see where the boundary is," says Panna "Why? It's like the scientists who want to go to Mars now that they've been to the moon. I want to amaze people with these stunts, to hear them 'ooh' and 'aah' with what happens on screen. And believe me, everything I do, every move I design, is safe. I will not do anything that isn't."

His movies _ and he's made no fewer than 50 during the past two decades _ are the cheapest, crudest barnyard B-flicks, made on a puny budget but with grandiose fervour. Explosive action sagas, their sole attraction is Panna's daredevil stunt choreography.

"You've probably never heard of my movies," says Panna. "They are popular among taxi drivers and som tam vendors and security guards and Isaan coolies. My loyalest fans are folk people in the far-out tambons, where they lay out mattresses on the ground and drink moonshine whisky while watching my outdoor movies."

No subtlety. No emo-involvement. No fear. No logic. No (don't kid him!) computer effects. Just the blunt physicality of in-your-face, death-daring challenges.

In person, this native of Khon Kaen is a homey, dark-skinned bloke whose bright teeth make him visible when he smiles. Particularly now Panna has lots of reasons to smile, having finally gotten his big break last year as the guru fight-scene choreographer of the smash hit Ong-Bak.

And now, next month, Panna will release, through Sahamongkol Film, his first big-budget studio movie called Kerd Ma Lui, or Born to Fight, a high-concept ass-kicking actioner that looks ready to repeat the local and international success of Ong-Bak (see sidebar).

Meek and modest, Panna looks like a guy who'd be happy to lay out a mattress and munch on meatballs while watching an outdoor free flick himself. In the past, all his 50-plus B-titles received only unceremonious releases in drab provincial theatres and have been recently resurrected in the even more unceremonious form of 39-baht VCDs.

Even Panna admits that most of his movies are crap, made to scrap up just enough money to invest in the next one, in real indie filmmaking style.

But from the scrapheap, Panna says, there are a few titles injected with genuine creativity _ marvellous stunt-work that combine his self-taught gymnastics and homemade calculus. While Panna's cinema certainly doesn't stray close to the vicinity of art, its existence and popularity speak of its vintage status in the realm of Thai cinema.

"My inspirations, above all, were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee," says Panna. "The James Bond movies also made me wonder how the stuntmen did what they did." A physical education grad, Panna in 1979 stuck his foot in the door by migrating from Khon Kaen to Bangkok to work as a physical trainer for movie stars. On the set he absorbed bits and pieces of the craft of filmmaking, and when the itch got too unbearable, the Jackie Chan-esque instinct drove the Isaan boy to start making his own movie.

Back in Khon Kaen, Panna formed a stunt team of 20 men _ the brotherhood of dare-devilry who've continued to work with him until today. Gleaning a 500,000 baht budget, Panna wrote, directed and starred in his debut Kerd Ma Lui (which he's remade into a big-budget flick this year), a crazy collage of non-stop stuntsmanship where the death of the characters _ and actors _ seemed not a choice but a destiny. But of course nobody died on the set, and though the film wasn't a hit, Panna gained a reputation as a new fearless hero.

"I thought, 'well, if Jackie Chan could tumble from a building, we could do the same'," Panna recalls. "I watched Bruce Lee flicks and was fascinated by how the fighting was so realistic. I believe in the psychology of movie-watching that when the audience realises that the stuntwork is real _ that they're not special effects whatsoever _ they'll regard it not only as spectacle but as something more high-impact, more exciting, more scary.

"What I and my team have been doing, like when I collide my bike with a truck, is to simulate an accident with careful preparation. We do a lot of calculation in advance. We measure the distance, the velocity of the vehicles, the impact of the crash. We estimate the probability that something will go wrong and how to prevent it. We practise gymnastics, we practise how to jump, how to fall, how to duck, how to land. See, the more I push the limit, the more I have to come up with surefire safety measures. The two things have to go hand in hand. If we're not sure, we won't shoot a scene."

In his 2004 remake of Kerd Ma Lui, there's mind-boggling stuntwork. In one scene, two men, standing on the roofs of two speeding trucks, are fighting frantically when one of them falls. He lands on the ground as one of the trucks giant wheels rolls past his head, missing him by mere centimetres. No fear. No hesitation. No computer retouch. Everything happens in one continuous take. Perhaps those detractors are right, Panna is really a sadist, a master of violence.

"It's not violence I'm showing. It's amazement," he says, smiling his visible smile. "We'd rehearsed that scene for probably a year before we shot it. We calculated the guy's weight _ he couldn't be too big or too small. We projected how he'd bounce off the truck once he fell. We looked at every possibility. We knew we couldn't afford a single mistake.

"But even if something did go wrong, like, say, he'd fallen under the speeding truck instead of beside it. In such case we'd prepared a safety precaution that'd save his life. I cannot tell you what it was. Like a magician, I cannot tell you how I pull the bird out of my sleeve. It'd spoil the fun, wouldn't it?"

In his entire career, Panna's worst accident was when he dislocated his shoulder. Apart from that, a few scratches here and there. Never a stitch. He's not exceptionally courageous, he says, but he just wants to prove that he can be courageous. What drives Panna, it seems, is less an attitude of fatalism than that of curiosity. And yes, he knows his job can be unforgiving, but his talisman is that he knows perfectly well that jumping off a speeding truck is unforgiving.

"You watch my movies and you go 'oh somebody must have died during the shoot,"' says Panna. "What else can I say? 'Don't try this at home', perhaps."

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