In 2003 the film, Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, was released to great acclaim. At first glance, the film should be resigned to the discount DVD bin. The plot is full of holes and borders on the ridiculous, the dialogue is contrived, and the acting is terrible. However, through the star of the film, Tony Jaa, it rises from being a laughably bad film to being a testament to the perfection of physical capability.
Tony Jaa’s acting through the film can be described as bad at best. This is only compounded by the script giving him little to work with and the plot of the film itself being ridiculous. However, the film succeeds on the choreography and execution of its action scenes. Tony Jaa is an exception physical performer, and all of the terrible acting that he does while not punching something goes away once the martial arts scenes begin. Instead, his body is able to tell a compelling story as he fights. For example, in his first real fight scene in the film, he is put up against increasingly difficult opponents in an underground arena. During the first fight, Ting, Jaa’s character, is able to defeat his opponent effortlessly. The only time that his opponent is able to touch him is through cheating. However, the second fighter presents Ting with slight difficulty. Ting has difficulty hitting the opponent at first because his opponent is so quick. However, the viewer is able to follow Ting as he learns the man’s patterns of movement and is then able to counter them, leading to his victory. The last fighter proves to be an even more difficult match for Ting, as he subverts everything that Ting knows about fighting. Having been trained in a small village, Ting is unaccustomed to dirty fighting as was evidenced earlier in his fight against the first opponent. However, the last fighter does nothing but fight dirty, and thus the viewer watches Ting get hit with chairs, tables, plates, and even a refrigerator. It is only through struggling through the brutal assault that Ting is able to finally win. These series of fights shows Ting as a resilient character that is able to struggle through hardship in order to achieve victory. He learns from his previous mistakes and through this knowledge is able to defeat his opponent. This character building and storytelling is all done without dialogue, leaving the viewer to watch Jaa’s body language. While the script of the film leaves much to be desired, the story of a man persisting through adversity grabs the viewer’s attention.
The 2008 film, Ip Man, takes a diametrically opposite approach to Ong Bak. In comparison to Ong Bak’s thin plot which only serves to support the martial arts, Ip Man, uses the martial arts to support the plot of the film. The fights still tell a story, but their story only serves to support the characterization and plot that has been established through the dialogue and interactions between characters.
The titular character of Ip Man never seems terribly challenged in any of the fights through the film. He is established early on as the best martial artist in his village, and nothing in the film seeks to change that. At no point does the viewer feel any threat to Ip Man from any of the opponents he fights. Every blow that an enemy throws is either blocked or dodged. The ease that he wins his battles could easily become boring for the viewer as, without a struggle, there is nothing to invest in. However, the story that accompanies the fights causes the viewer to care about Ip Man as a person and thus care about what winning the fight means. In addition, while Ip Man starts off wealthy and happy, the invasion of the Japanese causes his life to spiral downward. He has to struggle in his daily life to feed his family. Thus the viewer’s thirst for struggle is satiated by the plot itself. Once Ip Man gets into a fight, the viewer has grown so attached to him and watched him struggle so much that when he succeeds with little effort the viewer is thrilled to see him succeed.
Each fight in Ip Man has a different energy to it according to where it falls in the plot. The first fight in the film is a simple sparring match and thus the fight seems more playful and honorable. This is a very different energy than the final fight against the Japanese general. After watching the Japanese brutalize his friends and family, Ip Man savagely overwhelms his opponent with little mercy. The film uses fight scenes in a very similar way that musicals use songs. When the characters reach an emotional level that cannot be expressed in words, they fight. In this way, the fight scenes serve to reinforce the plot instead of the plot serving as a vehicle for fight scenes.
The differences between the way fights are used in Ong Bak and the way they are used in Ip Man is reinforced by the fighting styles of the two main characters. Ting uses a very flashy version of Muay Thai which is full of flying elbows and knees. It seems that every other move he is launching himself through the air in order to brutally attack his opponent. This is reinforced by Tony Jaa’s amazing physical condition which allows him to perform stunts that most people require wires to do. This style of martial arts creates large flashy action sequences full of over the top movements. Ip Man, on the other hand, uses a very reserved form of Wing Chun. He makes small moves and only expends the minimum required energy to block and strike his opponent. The action sequences created by this style are sharper, and serve to fulfill their purpose just like the movements of the hero.
These two films showcase the two different sides of the martial arts genre. Ong Bak is a film that exists solely for the purpose of celebrating physical achievement. The film allows Tony Jaa to demonstrate his physical capabilities. The viewer is less concerned with the plot, but instead simply wants to see what ridiculous stunt Jaa will be able to pull off next. Ip Man instead creates a world in which fighting is normal, but makes it secondary to the film. Instead, it is the points in between the fight scenes that draw the viewer in with the fights scenes inserted in order to drive home a point. However, with all their differences, the two films still come down to the same basic concept. They focus on a man who must struggle against adversity in order to eventually overcome it. The protagonists are both skilled and flawed in their own ways. In the end, both films celebrate the physical prowess of the human body in a way that only the martial arts film can.