Fantasia 2011: ‘BKO: Bangkok Knockout’ is among the best Thai martial arts movies to date
Directed by Panna Rittikrai
Written by Panna Rittikrai, Dojit Hongthong and Jonathon Siminoe
It comes as a bit of a shock to say that Bangkok Knokout is the best Kung Fu flick of this year’s Fantasia. It’s not as surprising to say that it includes the best martial arts and the best stunt work of the Festival. Thailand has been bringing the world the most bone-shattering, dirty, dangerous martial arts work since 2003’s Ong Bak and much of the credit for that can go to Panna Rittikrai, director of Ong Bak and Chocolate – or to put it another way, the man who introduced the world to Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin.
But great fighting by itself does not make for a great fighting film. The problem with most Thai films have been their weird and frequently incomprehensible plots: Tony Jaa rescuing kidnapped elephants in The Protector (Tom Yum Goong) or rescuing statues bigger than an elephant in Ong Bak or Jeeja Yanin in Raging Phoenix fighting slavers who kidnap women to make perfume (with Viagra-like properties) by distilling the tears of beautiful women. Fireball had the start of a simple plot by giving us a film about an underground full-contact basketball tournament sponsored by mafia kingpins and fought to the death, but mucked it up a bit by adding some ridiculous melodrama involving twins and completely ruined it by filming the martial arts like a jittery under lit rap video.
By comparison, Bangkok Knockout has a simple plot that almost immediately propels us into non-stop action. A stunt team wins a competition against fifty other teams to be flown to Hollywood and do the stunts of major motion picture. They have a celebration dinner and many drinks. The next morning, they wake up to find their cars and bikes stolen. Since some of the team were only drinking orange juice, they quickly realize that they have been mickied, just in time for a car Mad Max’d up in armour to try and kill them. Retreating (or rather herded) they find themselves in a massive warehouse wired with cameras and filled with a much larger and more experienced stunt team. In the confusion, one of the female members of the team (and daughter of a general), Joy (Supaksorn Chaimongkol), is kidnapped. (While Joy is kidnapped, she is not just a helpless victim and is a continuous danger to escape.)
The team (and Joy’s bodyguard) must rescue her with the cameras rolling and the other stunt team challenging them to fights to the death along the way. The footage is being watched by a group of decadent gamblers who bet for and against the team in fights set up by the event producer.
It’s a simple plot, well-executed. It places Bangkok Knockout firmly in the tradition of Kung Fu flicks, but also part of the newer tradition of urban survival horror films like Battle Royale and $la$her$. The film even acknowledges that debt by making one of the opposing stunt team a metal-mask-wearing, axe-waving psychopath.
Of course, saying that Bangkok Knockout is the best Kung Fu flick of this year’s Fantasia is damning it with faint praise. It’s competition is the weakest in years: Ip Man: The Legend is Born was a contemptible cash grab that abandoned the best part of the previous two films – Donnie Yen as Ip Man; Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was bloated excess uncomfortably trapped halfway between a mystery and Kung Fu action; and True Legend teetered on the verge of risky greatness before chickening out in favour of a safer mediocrity.
Compare that to Fantasia 2010, when Gallants, Little Big Soldier and Bodyguards and Assassins were all not just great Kung Fu flicks, but great films full stop and every one much better than all the Kung Fu flicks featured this year.
Bangkok Knockout‘s greatest weakness is that it does a very poor job of developing its characters. It has a big cast and not much personality to go around. Worse, the film (with very few exceptions) does not allow the actors to express their characters through their martial arts. The best fighting films (like say Brawler from this year’s Fantasia) allow their characters to express who they are through how they fight.
Despite its weaknesses, Bangog Knockout is the best Kung Fu flick of this year’s Fantasia line-up and one of the best Thai martial arts films to date.