Auds craving another shot of Thai boxing along “Ong-Bak” lines will get their fill in the less flashy but more dramatically substantial “Muay Thai Chaiya.” A pulpy crime actioner about three hopefuls from the sticks mixing it with the big boys in disco-era Bankgok, Kongkait Komesiri’s solo helming debut packs all the mayhem demanded by genre fans and delivers more emotional clout than regular chopsocky fare, despite some narrative clutter. World preemed at the Bangkok fest, pic has sold to 30 territories already and should open with a bang locally Aug. 30.
Unhurried opening, set in 1972, finds three young friends forming inseparable bonds in a southern fishing village. Voiceover narration is by non-athletic joker Samor (Sonthaya Chitmanee), whose best buddies are hothead Piak (Akara Amarttayakul) and self-contained Pao (Thawatchai Penpakdee), both of whom have been trained in the almost extinct Chaiya discipline by Pao’s strict father, Tew (ex-champ Samart Payakarun).
Busting to quit the boring backwater, the trio get their chance when Piak and Pao do well enough on the local circuit to get a shot at fame in the big smoke.
Tempo quickens on fast-forward to Bangkok, 1977. After early success, the naive boys start learning hard truths from shady managers and crooked promoters headquartered in girlie bars. While Pao maintains a steady course, Piak winds up as a combatant in illegal and extremely brutal cage matches.
Worse, he’s caught in flagrante with a floozy by wife Sriprai (Parita Kongpech), who flees into the arms of Pao. Things hit rock bottom when the fallen fighter and Samor become contract killers to make ends meet.
A little convoluted, with too many minor characters in its midsection, the movie streamlines and comes home strongly in its 1982-set closing chapter. Pao’s arrival as a genuine contender and the sudden reappearance of his father triggers a pacy and satisfying settlement of all scores inside and outside the ring.
Solid lead perfs are in keeping with the high regard for realism displayed in every facet of the film. Trained up from scratch for their roles, Amarttayakul and debutant Penpakdee give the impression they’ve been fighting all their lives. Chitmanee balances the act nicely as the comic sidekick who becomes painfully aware he’s way out of his depth.
Brandishing the no-CGI-in-action-scenes promise that’s become a badge of honor for the new wave of Thai fight films, Komesiri and fight choreographer Pamoon Somanavat (“Bang Rajan”) supply an abundance of set pieces that are always exciting without tipping into the fantastic. No-nonsense stance is backed up by Sayompoo Mukdeeprom’s gritty lensing, while costuming and production design evoke the era marvelously sans any comic kitsch.