Friday, July 23, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Raging Phoenix (and Fireball) Thailand

Fantasia 2010: Raging Phoenix (and Fireball) Thailand

Raging Phoenix aka Deu suay doo (2009) Thailand imdb Directed by Rashane Limtrakul Written by Sompope Vejchapipat.

I am not sure if anyone reads these because they are looking for films to watch (or avoid) but if you do, here is why you must hunt down Raging Phoenix in three words:


My work here is done!


You need more convincing? You need a slightly longer review? OK. How about a full sentence.

Raging Phoenix stars the girl from Chocolate as a young alcoholic who learns Drunken Thai Kick-Boxing to fight human slavers.



No not Juliette Binoche. Yes, Carrie-Anne Moss would make more sense, but not her either. Look we are not talking about the Lasse Hallström film Chocolat, we are talking about the Thai martial arts film Chocolate that introduced the world to the best female martial artist on film since Michelle Yeoh, namely JeeJa Yanin aka Yanin Vismistananda/Yanin Vismitananda.

What makes her special is that she hits people like Tony Jaa (that relentlessly physical Muay Thai style); she combines martial arts with dance like Jackie Chan only adding break-dancing to the mix; she uses team martial arts choreography like Jet Li and Miu Tse in My Father is a Hero and she has more emotional range than any of the men. She is also completely willing to get dirty and look unglamorous.

The plot of Raging Phoenix (such as it is) sees JeeJa playing Deu, a morose alcoholic who has lost or alienated everyone in her life with her combative ways. When slavers try to kidnap her, she is rescued by a troupe of drunken Thai kick-boxing break-dancers (I can hardly believe that you can list those words one after the other into a phrase that exists on film), named Pig-Shit, Dog-Shit, Bull-Shit and Sanim. All four men have lost someone in their life to slavers and have dedicated their lives to drinking and beating up slavers while drunk.

To be exact they practice the art of Meyraiyuth, a combination of drinking, Muay Thai, breakdancing and parkour. There is a bit more philosophy here than in Jackie Chan's Drunken Master films. As Bull-Shit explains to Deu, "Meyraiyuth is about pain. Alcohol is just the way that pain becomes violence."

In other words, when Jackie Chan practices Drunken Style Kung-Fu, the drunker he gets, the better at Kung-Fu that he gets. Which is why Drunken Master 2 ends with Jackie drinking alcohol so strong that it sets his breath on fire. When Jeeja Yanin practices Meyraiyuth, the more emotional pain that she is in, the better at beating people she is. Which is why Raging Phoenix ends with a heart-broken Jeeja flat-out killing people with knees and elbows.

While melodramatic, the film does have villains who create Jeeja's emotional anguish and deserve her wrath. They are slavers, so it would seem obvious that they are kidnapping girls for forced prostitution, but that would be too simple. (One almost feels like the change was made at the behest of some official in Tourism Thailand worried that horny tourists might see the film and feel guilt over their sex trips.)  Instead of simple sexual slavery, the Jaguar gang in the film kidnaps women to create an expensive perfume so intoxicating that its wearers become addicted to sex. The perfume is made from human pheromones and when this is announced it conjures thoughts of some hideous rendering factory which feeds beautiful Thai girls screaming into its gears to be ground down into tiny perfume bottles.

Again, too simple an idea. The slavers make their perfume from the rarest substance know to man: the tears of genuine sorrow from beautiful women.

There will come a time and soon, when Jeeja Yanin is given a script worthy of her amazing talents. Until that time, we can enjoy the immense guilty pleasure of watching her in action.

Key word there is watch. Despite its incredible high-concept premise, I can't recommend this next film because it is literally unwatchable.

Fireball aka Tar Chon (2009) Thailand imdb Directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan Written by Thanakorn Pongsuwan and Kiat Sansanandana and Taweewat Wantha and Adirek Wattaleela.

Fireball is built on a brilliant, simple concept: Bloodsport for Basketball. Tony Jaa's stunt team play the assorted thugs entered in an annual underground full-contact basketball tournament run by the Thailand gang-lords. Each team is sponsored by one gang-lord who view the tournament as important for bragging rights, for the winner-take-all cash prize and as an augury to predict their future successes.

The rules are simple and brutal. Each team starts with five players. If a player gets injured or killed during the tournament, you can't replace him. You win games by either scoring 1 basket (!) or by making the other team unable to play by either killing or injuring all of them. Most teams consider winning by scoring a basket a tactic for pansies.

The plot of Fireball (such as it is) revolves around twin brothers Tai and Tan both played by Preeti Barameeanat. Tai is the criminal of the duo. When he is spring from prison early thanks to a hefty bribe from Tan, Tai discovers that his brother raised the money by entering the Fireball tournament and the injuries Tan suffered as a result have left him in a coma. Tai decides to enter the tournament posing as his brother hoping to find out who injured his brother and take vengeance on them.

So you have vengeance paired with paranoia as Tai has no idea who he can trust. Each member of his team including the gang-boss who funds it have their secrets. And those are the ones who are supposed to be on Tai's side, never mind the other teams who are just trying to kill or cripple him.

Pure melodrama, but that's not the problem. Most martial arts movies are paced like porn: Plot, dialogue, fight. And the plot is usually just as critical to the success of the film: a good plot can improve the film, but a bad one can't really hurt it that much.

No, the problem with Fireball is that you can't see what is going on. The film is shot with the dark, twitchy style of really bad rap videos. One of the games takes place at night, in a raging rain-storm with erratic lighting and for no good reason at all dry ice on the court. All of the bad habits that have popped up in recent sports films, where the games are shot with the herky-jerky hand-held style in extreme close-up.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like being able to tell what is going on in the game in a sports movie (or a martial arts film - or a porn for that matter).

And call me an idiot because if they make a sequel to Fireball, as they are threatening to do, I will pay to see it.

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