Martial Arts in Ong-Bak : Muay Thai Boran


The Martial Arts in Ong Bak


In the film Ong Bak, Ting (Tony Jaa) is an orphan, raised by the kind-hearted monk Pra Kru at Nong Pradu temple. Pra Kru trains Ting in the ancient art of Muay Thai, but insists that Ting promise never to use his skills to cause anyone harm. Instilled by Par Kru with true Buddhist teachings, Ting is determined to follow a good path in life. When the head of Ong-Bak, the village deity has been stolen by drug dealers, he must travel to the big city of Bangkok to retrieve it. On his journey, he will be force to fight but also must follow the path of good.

         During the early 80s, Panna Rittikrai, a veteran of Thai action cinema took Tony Jaa, an aspiring martial artist under his wing, training him in kung fu and stunt work. Tony also studied Taekwondo, swordplay and gymnastics as he grew older. His skills became so advanced that he gave demonstrations in Northeast Thailand and China. When this project came up, Panna specifically had Tony Jaa in mind for the main role. To prepare for the role, Tony added his native sport to his physical repertoire, and began training in Muay Thai four years ago, specifically for his role in Ong Bak.

         Prior to production, Panna and Tony put together their own stunt team, and painstakingly and painfully choreographed the film's action sequences. “I focused on the beauty of the classical Muay Thai movements,” reveals Panna. “I tried to stay true to the integrity of the art, because I knew this would be the first real Thai Boxing film. I wanted every punch and kick to be crystal clear to the audience.”

         What makes Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior so distinctive from the Chinese martial arts films that influenced it is Jaa's unique fighting style: Muay Thai, an ancient form of Thai boxing. "What makes Muay Thai different from other forms of martial arts is that the elbows and knees are used," he explained, going on to tell us about the three different versions. "There's Muay Thai Boran, an ancient form used during wartime that has a lot of culture and tradition involved with it, the kind of fighting you see in 'Ong Bak'," Jaa said. "Then there's a form of stage boxing when it becomes a sport, where the culture and tradition that comes from the various moves disappears because of the rules that become involved with it."  

        “Every scene serves as a showcase for different movements from classical Muay Thai,” says Prachya. “Originally, when I conceived the film, I didn't think about using Thai Boxing. Then, when I started working with Panna and Tony, they shot some videotape footage of the kind of fights they wanted to do. Once I saw these unique Muay Thai movements, I was impressed with the moves, and the fact that Tony could execute them so naturally, without wires or other tricks. That became the ‘style' for the film's fight scenes.”

         Prachya broke down the different Muay Thai movements in terms of their cinematic application. “Each action has a different purpose,” he reveals. “Some are for counter attacks. Some of them are first strike moves. Some actions, like the guard, are taken to fend off an opponent.” Even the smallest details added to the effect Prachya and his team were aiming for. “If you look at the way Tony holds his fists, it's different from Chinese kung fu,” says the director, “and it's different from western boxing. Every time he punches, he straightens the whole arm. You have to watch the fights closely to catch the details in the action. The guard position, the way he stamps the ground, these are all trademarks of Muay Thai.”

         The production took great care in finding an appropriate variety of opponents for Ting to fight. One of the most memorable is a hirsute Wildman from the west, ‘Big Bear'. “Big Bear completely disrespects Thai Boxing,” says Prachya of the character. “He wants to challenge all the Thai fighters, and we see him sexually abusing a Thai waitress. Our hero has to defend the pride of the Thai people. The move he uses in that scene is called ‘Bata Loop Pak', which means ‘Foot Touches Face'. It's actually a great insult in Thai culture to touch someone with your foot, so this was the perfect gesture for such a rude person.

“Bata Loop Pak” (Front push kick to the face). In Muay Thai, this technique is a gesture of disgracing your opponent. The head is consider a sacred part of the body in Buddhism so when the sole of the feet, the part of the body people use to walk on dirt is push into someone face, it is sign of great disrespect.


At one point in the film during the Thai Boxing match, Ting would perform a dance-like movement before initiating into a stance. This is called Yang Sam Khum, translated as “3 steps in 3 step paths”. It's a common practice in Muay Thai with many variations. According to legends, it is believe that by performing this ritual, this has the ability to increase one's awareness, strength, and courage to ward off beasts.

Unlike Modern Muay Thai competition, fighters used to wrap their hands in rope. This old tradition was banned during the early 20’s by the government.

        Towards the end of the film, Ting enters a cave and is confronted with assailants with various weapons. This scene was particular film to showcase Krabi Krabong, an ancient Thai weapons fighting art develop to fight off invaders long ago. During war times, battlefield fighters had to face violence from many opponents on all sides. It teaches how to dispatch multiple enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Various weapons were used such as the swords and a staff in this scene. One of these weapons shown is a “Mai Sok” which is a piece of wood to be worn on both forearms and used both as a striking and blocking weapon. Mai Sok translated as Wooden-Elbow. Its a wooden weapon worn on the forearm to strike and to to block.

As well as using classical Muay Thai style of fighting, Rittikrai takes full advantage of Tony Jaa's talent in acrobatics in creating some of the dynamic fight sequences. “I used my childhood experiences in sports like gymnastics, hurdling, and high jump, and I combined all that with Muay Thai in Ong-Bak.” Tony says. A perfect example of this personalize styles is when Ting uses his agility by jumping on to his opponent's shoulder and then launching a devastating elbow drop attack to another opponent's head from high above.

         In this art, it is also important to follow the righteous path taught in Buddhism. The root of Muay Thai is embedded in Buddhism which strongly reflects the character of Ting and the practise of Muay Thai. When Tings must venture into the dangerous city of Bangkok, he is not only face with physical trails but he goes on a spiritual journey that will but his beliefs to the test. Tony incorporated many of Buddhism belief such as having mental strength, the respect of sacred, maintaining peace with others and helping those in need. Only when Ting is push to point of no return he must unleash the fighting spirit of Muay Thai.

         Ong Bak is the first film to ever present the ancient art of Muay Boran. It is Panna Rittikrai and Tony Jaa's life long dream to make this film. For four years in productions, they pour their hearts and soul to bring the attention to this long forgotten art to the world. "…this film expressed something bigger which I want all audience to feel it. For me, it's just 4 years, but for Panna and Tony Jaa, it's their lives. They prepared with tough training period throughout their lives for this film." says Panna.