Saturday, July 19, 2008
VENGEANCE (2006) d. Preaw Sirisuwan
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Thai action films through watching Tony Jaa’s movie ONG-BAK. Fortunately, I was able to see an original subtitled version of the film through the good offices of a friend who procured a copy for us in Boston’s Chinatown. ONG-BAK was an exhilarating cinematic experience, prompting my friends and I to see BORN TO FIGHT, TOM YUM GOONG and just last night we watched CHOCOLATE, all of which have crystallized for us the notion that Thai action is what Hong Kong and even American action films use to be before the corrupting influences of money and the insurance industries took both motion picture centers down the wrong path. Adding to a growing legacy of exciting and visually stimulating Thai action films is VENGEANCE, originally titled PHAIRII PHINAAT PAA MAWRANA. It combines the gunplay of Hong Kong classics like BULLET IN THE HEAD, the mysticism of modern Japanese horror films and the creatures and monsters of American cinema like HARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS.
VENGEANCE is the twin stories of young men Wut and Naso, both of whom are tied to a tragedy they experienced as boys and now each occupying opposite ends of the legal and moral spectrum. Wut is the captain of a small police force that follows Naso’s band of thieves and killers deep into forbidden mountains and jungles. Neither realizes that the large coin that Naso has in his possession is at the center of their misfortune and is the nexus of the evil that grips the cursed forests of the Thai-Myanmar border. As the chase descends more deeply into darkness, the groups are attacked by malevolent animals and even more malicious creatures, some of them not fully human. It is only when Captain Wut reaches the center of the paradox of his life that he is able to gain an empty victory over lawlessness and evil.
VENGEANCE is what VAN HELSING should have been. VENGEANCE is a film for people who like their action to be a mix of guns, knives, creatures, chases and bloody violence, and then blend it with a jungle setting as well as mysticism and fantasy elements that take the story out of the realm of realism and make it something more. Even with all that, VENGEANCE takes a breather now and then to develop its story, explore characters and create a degree of drama. In fact, the first one-third of VENGEANCE takes its time building its momentum, moving in a patient slither like a snake stalking its prey, allowing the last one-third of the movie to become the appropriate thrill ride that it is supposed to be, just like a snake when it strikes. What rocket-ride movies like VAN HELSING never understand is that if a film is to be like a roller coaster, the roller coaster ride is only as exciting as the stretches where you decelerate briefly, building that sense of anticipation in advance of the next plunge. VENGEANCE has that undulating quality of pacing and intensity levels, giving you time to ponder what has happened, what is occurring at that moment and what is likely to take place in the future. Even better than that is the fatalistic nature of Thai cinema. Except for a brief spell in the 1970s when fatalism abounded, American film has always been chained to the need to tell a “feel good” story and end on a positive note. Not so with Thai film, and VENGEANCE ends with an almost Richard III bloodiness and pessimism. This makes the tale that much sweeter, for it becomes a “Sophie’s Choice” where no outcome isn’t fraught with sorrow, and even if victory can be achieved, it is won at a frightful cost.
VENGEANCE is a mix of visual strengths and weaknesses. Shot on location in the jungles of Thailand, the scenery is splendid at the very least and is often spectacular right when it needs to be. There are times when some of the landscape photography is augmented by atmospheric CG imaging to intensify the moodiness. This works well. The cast is a mix of old and young, male and female, beautiful and unpleasant-looking, aiding in creating an impression that average folk are now pitted against forces beyond their imagining. It is on the subject of imagination that things break down a bit for this film. The monstrosities that come forth from the Thai jungles to plague the protagonists are certainly creative and fascinating, but Thai computer wizardry has yet to catch up with the best the West has to offer. Many of the effects were created with sincere effort and emerging skill, but they still looked a bit fake and cheesy at times. My great concern is that the Siren Call of CGI is part of what ruined American and Hong Kong action films. Hopefully Thai films will still depend on their outstanding ability to create realistic action sequences and will not be seduced by the lure of what a computer can do for your motion picture.
VENGEANCE has a small bit enjoyable set of bonus features. There is a six minute “Behind the Scenes” feature where principal crew members discuss inspirations, techniques and challenges of filming VENGEANCE. For those wishing to hear and see more about the technical issues of creating a film like VENGEANCE, while not as in-depth as I’m sure you’d wish, there is still some fascinating points made. Grafted onto this featurette seems to be an industry commercial selling the strong points of VENGEANCE. There is also a film-inspired music video, which is certainly reminiscent of American-made film-music videos, but because it is the original Thai performer singing in his own language, that will be a little out of the ordinary for most Americans. Finally, there is a pair of theatrical trailers, one that is Asian in nature, while the other is a Western trailer, so the opportunity to compare is quite interesting.
One of the things I have always enjoyed about Asian cinema of all kinds is its genre-bending complexity. VENGEANCE pulls together crime drama elements and marries them to horror film components, then mixes them with a healthy dose of mystical fantasy and sprinkles on layers of action. The result is a film which may very well appeal to a wide variety of viewers who want their fare to be intense but a little more thoughtful. If Americans can overlook the unfamiliar names of the actors, get past the fact that they’ll have to read subtitles and open their minds to a different set of icons in folklore and fantasy, they should enjoy VENGEANCE quite a bit. Just as I have been thoroughly enjoying Korean-made horror films as of late, I am hopeful that the trickle of Thai films continues to flow unabated. There is a freshness and radiant sense of purity from the Far East these days when it comes to film. Just as Marco Polo learned a lifetime of lore from his journeys to The Orient long ago, maybe it is time for Westerners to look to The East again for inspiration and to see how rundown and worn out our formulaic efforts are and how its time to climb out of the rut we’ve made for ourselves.