2006/Feb/05

DOUBLE TAKE

High stakes, crazy stunts and international ambitions mark the making of 'Tom Yum Goong', the big-budget sequel to hit 'Ong-Bak'. Real.time visited the set in Australia for an inside look

Bangkok Post, Story by KONG RITHDEE

1:45pm

It is hot. So #### hot. So hot the thick water of Sydney's Darling Harbour gives off an invisible vapour of heat, much to the delight of sun-crazed Australians strolling along this lively waterfront. But for the film crew heat is a nuisance they have no choice but to deal with. Sweating buckets, they're racing to shoot as many cuts as possible before the deadline of 5pm, when they're compelled by restrictions to evacuate the harbour's Pyrmont Bridge and clear out of this picturesque pedestrian walkway.

Heat aside, Prachya Pinkaew is carping about Aussie bugs. "These buzzing flies!" frets the chubby director. "Have they got to you too? In broad daylight, man. And why are there so many of them?!"

Matching the number of pestilential Aussie flies is the number of Thai journalists invited by Sahamongkol Film to visit the location shooting of its new flagship movie, called Tom Yum Goong _ aka the sequel to Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, the Siamese martial arts smash hit that invaded foreign theatres with the zing of a Viagrated koala bear. To make sure everyone in this country knows they'd spare no expense to repeat that success, Sahamongkol Film flew 60 journalists to Sydney, treating us to oily Chinese food and comfy city tours. It's the largest press junket I've ever joined in my life. So many of us _ and fatefully an equal number of male and female participants _ I'm convinced we all can just settle down and found some new Thai village somewhere in the Outback, raise ostriches and breed film journalists to export to other parts of Australia.

Just the thought of the throat-slashing heat and those darn flies advise me against the idea.

2:05pm

"We want to show that a Thai film can be made with an international standard, with international locations and crew," beams Sahamongkol's big boss Somsak Techaratanaprasert. "With the blockbuster success of Ong-Bak overseas, we hope to push it up to the next level."

That level means a 200-million-baht budget, making Tom Yum Goong the second most expensive Thai film ever after Suriyothai. The next level also means 90 percent of the shooting will take place in Sydney, with the backdrop varying from the trendy Cockle Bay to Chinatown to the signature Harbour Bridge. Australian crew, required by the Aussie law, shuffle about along with the Thai ones. Foreign cast, though their names are not entirely familiar, include the two-metre-tall giant Nathan Jones, a wrestling star, and the hunkish Johnny Nyuyen, an LA-born stuntman who arrives with a unique reputation: he was the stunt double for Toby McGuire in the Spider-man movies, the one who performed all those tricky physical shots with his face hidden under the cobwebbed mask.

But the brightest star (despite his tanned skin) is our local lad Panom "Jaa" Yeerum. Dubbed the next Bruce Lee, the new Jackie Chan, the kick-butt maestro, etc etc, this humble Isaan boy who catapulted into the global spotlight after his neck-cracking opus in Ong-Bak generated flurries of ticket sales everywhere from Bangkok to Paris and Tokyo to London.

"I'm sure the action will be more intense," Jaa says wiping sweat from his forehead. "We have foreign action stars joining us, and we've planned more stunning Muay Thai moves. It's going to be fun."

Brutalisation is the spectacle of the day. And even as the afternoon lethargy creeps in, I, along with the curious crowds of blond-haired onlookers, am ready to see Jaa performing a few deadly moves.

3:15pm

In Ong-Bak Jaa plays a country bumpkin who travels to Bangkok to retrieve a stolen Buddha image. In Tom Yum Goong, he plays a country bumpkin who travels to Sydney to retrieve a stolen elephant. The culprit is a femme fatale who runs an evil empire out of her Thai restaurant called, what else, Tom Yum Goong. No wonder the motive behind the film's title is to advertise the saucy Thainess of the action to foreign markets _ just like the famous shrimp soup has done to the world.

The scene on the bridge is chosen to please the visiting Thai journalists (which outnumber the crew). Jaa, bent on finding the lost elephant, clashes with three baddies as the Sydney Monorail rumbles over his head, and ends up teaching them a few physical education lessons with his elbows.

As usual, the setup takes much longer than the actual shoot. Enriched by raspberry Gatorade, the crew, Thai and Aussie, scamper about fixing the mic, adjusting the light, while the journalists, usually familiar with asking questions, are forced to answer repeated queries from onlookers about what's going on.

"What's the movie?" a woman asks me. "A Thai movie" I say. "Who's in it?". I tell them. She nods and says "Hmm." Never mind, Ong-Bak will open in Australia next February, at about the same time Tom Yum Goong will open in Thailand.

All set. The camera rolls. Jaa sprints along, springs himself up, double-kicks two minions mid-air with each of his legs, and on the way down training his right elbow to the unfortunate skull of Johnny Nyuyen, who duly collapses to the ground. Such magnificent athleticism, even more stunning in real life, is the genesis of Ong-Bak's no-stunt, no-wirework motto.

Shoddy narrative and subpar acting are not a nuisance, instead easily compensated for with a series of cool, photogenic setpieces administered by the hero. That worked with Ong-Bak, and director Prachya's certain it'll work again in this sequel.

Indeed, Jaa's skull-smashing move is so cool that, perhaps for the first time in the brief history of contemporary Thai cinema, the journalists successfully plead with the director to call for a retake so we can snap up photos. Unusual reason for a retake, I must say. But for an investment of this magnitude, the promotion blitz starts even before the film's finished.

4:55pm

"The authorities said they'd give us the bridge until 6pm, and now it's not even five and they say we have to clear out," Prachya murmurs as the shooting wraps for the day. "We can't work the way we do in Thailand. There's very little compromise here."

Prachya and his crew plan to spend a month shooting around Sydney. The more time Down Under, the more the budget balloons. But Prachya bites his lips to admit that it's his own call; the writer-director wrote a script with Sydney in the story. And now, rushing to finish the final shot of a long day, he can't refute that it's all more burdening that he'd first imagined.

8:45pm

Moving to a Thai restaurant in Sydney's New Town area, we mingle with the crew as Shiraz wine flows and som tam with kangaroo meat is served by diligent Thai students. Prachya, lubricated now by a real tom yum goong and a few glasses of Australian fermented grape, continues the chat he's left off at the bridge.

The director says he's chosen Sydney because he'd shot two music videos here back in the early 1990s, and fell for the laid-back charm of the city. "But when we're working full scale, with 50 crew people, it's more complicated than I first thought. I happened to specify Sydney in the script, so we've got to stick with it. But back then I had yet to scout locations in France and the US, and come to think of it now, perhaps those two countries might've been more convenient for us!"

Prachya's big headache now is a key scene which involves a live elephant, one that the Jaa character comes to rescue. "Australia, as you know, is so strict about forbidding the import of any live organism," the director says. "Bringing an elephant here is a giant task. But we must find a way to do it. There's no other way else to shoot that scene."

Topping one's own hit is an equally giant task. Prachya's erected a formidable barrier for himself when Ong-Bak raked in 120 million baht _ plus a few hundred million more in the international market. In Paris alone the ticket sales were something close to seven million euros. "I'm aware of the stake. But I think this is going to be a better movie. I believe that."

Before the evening folds, Sahamongkol screens a freshly-cut teaser of Tom Yum Goong to the journalists and the crew, who rub their hands in anticipation.

Reportedly this teaser created quite a stir among foreign buyers when it was shown at the recent American Film Market, and indeed the two-minute promo clip is packed with the same kinetic vigour that constituted the rough appeal of Ong-Bak, complete with Jaa's lethal choreographs and a chase scene in long-tailed boats (it was a pack of tuk-tuk in the first film).

But it takes a whole movie to tell if it's a good movie. And with all the sweat and the Aussie dollars and complications endured by Prachya and Sahamongkol Film, there's no choice but to make Tom Yum Goong a good movie. A really good movie.

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