These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan.
It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
Just as Ong Bak inspired a new generation of Thai stuntmen and film makers to break their necks doing stunts so insane that even Police Story era Jackie Chan would be impressed, so too did the international attention heaped upon Bang Rajan result in a parade of opulent Thai war epics, many of which were sadly snowed under by the similar onslaught of even bigger budget, more internationally acclaimed historical epics from the a resurgent Hong Kong, which was benefiting from an badly needed influx of new talent and money from mainland China. Perhaps even keener though, the Thai epic movement was a sort of response to the sudden interest of the Malaysian film industry in producing huge war epics — which they managed to do with a minute fraction of the budget that goes into a Chinese epic — to say nothing of an American epic.
There’s not much arguing the fact that in the battle of bloated historical epics, China was the victor. Their movies made the festival rounds the world over, occasionally even played regular theaters. Their movies featured the biggest budgets and stars who, while not exactly mainstream per se, had certainly crossed over to being better known in the United States and Europe than they had been back when a cadre of mad Hong Kong film fans were touting them. Even my parents, who aren’t prone to tracking such things, know Hero and Jet Li and Tony Leung Chui-wai, though they can’t always remember the latter’s name. In contrast, Thai epics mostly found themselves relegated to the ranks of DVD releases outside of their native country. And trite though it may be, there’s a reason people outside a very hardcore fanbase don’t know the names of any Thai stars. And even within hardcore fan circles, it’s rare that people can name anyone besides Jaa and Jeeja, even if they recognize other faces. And that the fact that Thai names are a lot longer and more complex. Still, given the past and how hard it used to be to find any Asian film in any format, It’s no small victory that the Thai movies made their way over here at all, what with them not being full of and all about white people.
Most of the Thai entries in the battle of the period pieces were more-or-less straight historical epics. Well, as straight as any epic from any country ever is with history. They were full of hot, shirtless guys with long hair and sweet mustaches — whoever is making fake wigs and facial hair for these film industries is raking in the cash — engaging in massive battles full of colorful costumes and war elephants. Eventually, though, there were only so many times Thai film makers could mine the border wars with Burma for dramatic content (amateurs — they really could learn a thing or two from Chinese film makers, who have been making movies about the Period of Warring States seemingly longer than the actual historical period lasted). As such, film makers started including more fantastical elements in their films, until you end up with something like Legend of the Tsunami Warrior, which is all full of masked assassins, pirates, ninjas, wizards, dudes riding around on giant manta rays, and of course, hot shirtless guys — with the added bonus that they are hot, shirtless guys who frequently emerge from or dive into the water in slow motion.
I don’t know if Legend of the Tsunami Warrior is based on any actual Thai story. The English language writing on the topic is sparse and generally shallow, and I’m afraid I’m not going to offer much more. However, I don’t think looking for any historical background to the movie is necessary, because it’s quickly obvious that this movie has less to do with Thai history and folklore and a lot more to do with the fact that someone wanted to make a Thai version of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In look, scope, and setting it is very similar to the Pirates franchise — lead actor Ananva Everingham even gives off a sort of Orlando Bloom vibe, with all the good and bad that entails. The Thai coastline may be a world away geographically from the Caribbean, but they’re still quite similar. Same turquoise water, same jungle-covered coves, same secret caves, and basically the same ships. The only real difference is that Tsunami Warrior includes a lot of visiting dignitaries from around Asia and North Africa so the costume department can show off how much awesome stuff it has.
The movie begins with a pirate attack on a Dutch ship carrying a couple massive cannons to the Queen of Langkasuka (veteran actress Jarunee Suksawat), whose kingdom is sandwiched in between all sorts of hostile sons of bitches, and the cannons will help her defend her small kingdom from its many aggressive neighbors. Unfortunately, some of those hostile sons of bitches fall upon the ship, sinking it, sending the cannons to the bottom, and killing the Dutch cannon master. His apprentice, a Chinese man named Lim Kium (Jakkrit Phanichphatikram), survives however, as does a baby, and they are rescued by a group of nearby fishermen. Both the queen and the pirates become obsessed with recovering the cannons from the bottom of the ocean, but neither of them are able to pull it off, resulting in a continued bloody stalemate in the games of power.
Apparently happy to put his weapon making days behind him, Lim settles into the village and becomes an inventor of more peaceful seeming items, including hang gliders and swimming fins. The baby — named Pari — spends a brief period of the film as a doughy young kid before, with the benefit of a cross-fade, eventually growing up to be lean, muscular Ananda Everingham. The lad’s adopted uncle wants him to become a Do Lum master — a power that is somewhere between wizardry, one of those fantasy martial arts styles, and Aquaman — so that he can aid in the fight against the murderous pirates plaguing the coast. However, the local Do Lum master, White Ray (Sorapong Chatree), doesn’t want to teach the boy, commenting that the power’s dark side is too tempting, and that ultimately nothing is gained from revenge or killing. The uncle is disappointed but understands, and so he decides to teach Pari what he can himself, which is mostly the parts of Do Lum that involve listening to the ocean with a tube and asking fish to do light favors for you.
Meanwhile, the queen and her two princesses Biru (Jacqueline Apithananon) and Ungu (Anna Ris) are still having issues with assassins and assorted ne’r-do-wells. A marriage is arranged between Ungu and the Prince of Pahang (Jesdaporn Pholdee) in order to strengthen both their positions. Ungu is the usual headstrong tomgirl who loves archery and fighting, but in a twist for these sorts of movies, her unseen betrothed doesn’t turn out to be weasel, scumbag, or abusive fat guy. He’s actually a pretty nice guy, though Ungu still isn’t wild about the arranged marriage. There’s also Lord Jarang, played by modern Thai action staple Chupong “Dan” Changprung, known in America under his western stage name “Is That Tony Jaa?” Jarang is the palace bad-ass, and man does he take a beating in this movie. He gets darts in his face, stabbed, sliced, shot, and even blown up yet keeps on fighting the good fight. When the queen learns that Lim is still alive, she dispatches Jarand and Ungu — along with Lim’s sister — to find him and have him build new cannons.
Back in the village, Pari soon discovers that Lim is not quite as peaceful as people think, and that the wily Chinese inventor has, with the assistance of Pari’s uncle and some other village men, formed a seafaring vigilante group that employ’s Lim’s inventions in the fight against pirates. Pari joins in on the fun, which was going well for them up until the pirates retaliate, slaughtering everyone in the village except Pari and Lim. The princesses arrive shortly after the slaughter, finding no one but Lim alive — Pari having swum out to the pirate ship to look for some ill-planned revenge. The delegation is soon set upon by a pirate ambush, and though Jarang fights valiantly, he’s one man against a horde of ninja pirates who can leap out of the water.
Pari escapes the clutches of the pirates and makes his way to their secret cave lair — still not having fully thought out his plan. But he runs into Jarang there, also sneaking in to the cave. They quickly ascertain they are working toward a common goal, and the aims of the palace, Lim, and Pari all align to finally put an end to pirate Black Raven (Winai Kraibutr) reign of terror. This being an epic, though, and an epic fantasy film at that, things have to be just that much more complicated, so we also learn that the dark side of Do Lum we heard about earlier actually manifests itself in the same man — meaning that White Ray has a split personality, the other side of which is named Black Ray (naturally) and is less concerned about corrupting — or killing — Pari. The finale is an almost fantastic pirate movie finale that is only somewhat undone by some dodgy CGI. However, it’s full of cannons, hang gliders, explosions…and then Pari calls in the goddamned humpback whale cavalry!
Despite the epic sprawl, there are really only a few central characters and the plot is fairly straight-forward once you strip away the window dressing. With Dan Changprung on hand, one expects some modern style Thai action scenes, and while he does deliver some decent kicks and jumps, this isn’t a stunt film. Most of the fighting is with swords, guns, and for the finale, dynamite and cannons. Even though he’s only a supporting character, his Lord Jarang is the best character in the film, mostly because all he does is beat the crap out of people, get blown up, then get back up and beat up more people. Ananda Everingham gives an earnest performance as Pari, but earnestness doesn’t stop him from being somethng of a bland lead — note that Orlando Bloom comparison from earlier. Danny Changprung has way more charisma and acting talent, but he doesn’t have the look of a modern hero. That is to say, he looks like a guy who might be capable in real life, instead of looking like a male model, which is how heroes look these days.Not to disparage poor Ananda; he does his best, and he’s better than a lot of guys who inhabit these sort of bland, overly noble heroes. And he’s certainly easy on the eyes. But I would have much rather spent more time watching Changprung.
As Princess Ungu, Anna Ris is better than the princess in these types of movies usually is, but she’s still obviously a rookie. Sometimes she looks vaguely overwhelmed by what’s going on around her, but she’s giving it her all and is surrounded by able performers. It makes it pretty easy to overlook her weaknesses. I mean, are you gonna worry about her being a weak actress, or are you going to pay attention to Danny Changprung laying on the charming smile and whipping around with swords? All things considered, I think Changprung deserves to be as big in the US as Tony Jaa. He’s a more charismatic actor, for one, and so far, he hasn’t proven to be completely bonkers. As has been the case with a lot of recent Thai films, though, the beauty of the actresses seems to play second fiddle to all the rugged, hot lads parading around in various stages of undress. Ananda Everingham spends most of the movie wet and in a loin cloth, and even the old guys in his village have rough-hewn good looks. They’re like more realistic versions of the over-sculpted dudes from 300. Anyone looking for a bit of male eye candy isn’t going to be let down.
Anyway, I also like that Anna Ris has a unique beauty about her — there’s a hint of Indian in her, or something of that nature. In fact, the whole of Tsunami Warrior is somewhat progressive in that the foreigners, for once, are not exposed to be scheming villains. The visiting Chinese, and even the Dutch, are good guys (or inconsequential). If this was a Chinese epic, of course the white guys would have eventually pulled a gun on the queen, snarl some awkward lines of dialogue in English, and then probably be revealed as the people who actually starved millions of people during the Cultural Revolution while Mao was busy trying to feed everyone in the world and also rescuing puppies. Thai epics are no less nationalistic that most epics, trumpeting the awesomeness of Thailand, but they usually do it without having to cast other nationalities as the treacherous villains (unless it’s those dastardly Burmese). Maybe this is because Thailand and The West have had more or less a pretty good relationship. You know, minus the whole sex tourism thing. But Thailand has never been invaded or occupied by a Western power the way China was, so there’s less cause for cinematic grudges.
I had a lot of fun watching this one and gladly bought in to the overblown bombast. At times, it feels like the movie is two hours long purely because that’s the apparent minimum run time for anything trying to sell itself as an epic, but even though it’s needlessly overlong, I never got bored. If nothing else, there was always dramatic Thai scenery at which to marvel. There’s also a lot of CGI, much of which is OK, some of which is pretty bad. There’s also some miniature work during the naval battles — or it’s CGI work that ends up looking like model work. There’s also a fair number of practical effects, and thank god they used actual physical blood packs instead of that horrible CGI blood that seems to be so popular for no reason at all. It was a massively expensive undertaking for the production studio, but most of what they spent looks like it made it onto the screen.
It’s true that if you are looking for martial arts action, you’ve come to the wrong place — though you won’t be entirely disappointed. But this is first and foremost an epic swashbuckler, and it has more to do with The Seahawk or Captain Blood than with Tony Jaa. That’s of course, slightly revising the classic swashbuckler so that Errol Flynn could command whales and Basil Rathbone could shoot wizard waves out of his hands. It wears the Pirates of the Caribbean influence on its sleeve, though if Tsunami Warrior makes one mistake, it’s the failure to also include some of the comedy of that series. I don’t want wink-wink irony, mind you, but a little something wouldn’t hurt. Even The Lord of the Rings and Asoka had some quips and light-heartedness amid the heroic posing, tragedy, and grand battles. Flynn may have been serious in his roles int he old swashbucklers, but Flynn also had a whole lot more charisma than Ananda Everingham. Tsunami Warrior handles itself with all the gravitas of Conan the Barbarian, and I think it could have lightened up a little and been a better movie for it — not that the stern-faced seriousness sinks it or anything.
Director Nonzee Nimibutr certainly knows how to frame an epic, despite this being his first film of this scale, but the screenplay is a little heavy handed. Before this, Nimibutr had garnered some international critical acclaim with a couple decent and sometimes controversial films, including the horror film Nang Nak, the historical drama Jan Dara. He also worked as a producer on Bangkok Dangerous, Bang Rajan, and Tears of the Black Tiger, so even though he came into Tsunami Warrior as a director with limited credits to his name, it wasn’t like he didn’t have in impressive pedigree to prepare him for the job. And like I said (I think) — by and large he succeeds. The film when it screened at Cannes clocked in around 144 minutes, and pretty much everyone agreed that was overlong for the material Nimibutr had. The film was eventually trimmed to a more manageable 119 minutes (114 after conversion from PAL), and I think that’s about where it needs to be. In that time frame, Nimibutr keeps the movie moving along pretty well, and if his past in horror and drama means he’s a little over serious, it also means he knows how to pace a scene, set up some tension, and deliver pretty great action sequences.
Legend of the Tsunami Warrior is basically by-the-books fantasy film making. You have the naive farm boy (or fisherman, as the case may be) destined for great things, the evil pirate, the wizard, the big battles, noble women who sacrifice themselves (Pari’s village love is so perfect and polite that you just know she’s destined to survive only one scene), and pretty much everything else the genre demands. About all it’s missing is a scene with dancing girls. It’s sprawling, slightly convoluted, and overly melodramatic. There are opulent throne rooms, colorful costumes, and lots of people wrapped in candy colored silk. It does nothing that you wouldn’t expect it to do, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Formulaic epic fantasy still almost always pleases me, and Legend of the Tsunami Warrior certainly did the trick.