Ong Bak: The Beginning (UK - BD)
Chris scratches his head in an attempt to understand exactly what he just saw
Thailand, 1421. In a time of political upheaval, the treacherous and power-hungry Lord Rajasena plots to overthrow his rival Lord Sihadecho. To this end his dispatches assassins who succeed in killing Sihadecho and his entire family, save for his son Tien. The boy manages to escape, but is soon captured by a group of slavers and forced to battle a crocodile for their amusement. Tien is saved by Cher Nung (Sorapong Chatree), a guerilla leader who recognises the boys innate physical abilities. Taking Tien as his adoptive son, Cher Nung trains him in a variety of martial arts until he reaches maturity and passes a series of trials. A now adult Tien (Tony Jaa) takes his place as leader of the group and sets out on a bloody quest for revenge, first against the slavers, and then against Lord Rajasena.
Now that's a pretty heavily condensed version of the plot, which has to be one of the most convoluted and needlessly confusing I've experienced in recent memory. In fact, I should probably have saved that line for my summary, because it's just about the only way to described Ong Bak: The Beginning. The story is a complete mess, Jaa's acting is woeful, and it feels like someone axed a good thirty minutes of plot out of the film. There's also a completely irrelevant romantic sub-plot that has absolutely no pay-off. However, in spite of these flaws, the film does what it says on the tin with regards to arse-kicking action. It takes a while for things to really get going thanks to a ton of needless flashbacks, but once Jaa starts hitting people in the face you start to remember why you forgive his lack of acting ability. The final battle is particularly impressive, as he fights a veritable army of enemies with a wide variety of styles and weapons (and an elephant). Personally I think the film would almost have been more enjoyable if they'd excised what little plot there is an concentrated on the fisticuffs, but perhaps that's just me.
Ong Bak: The Beginning arrives with a fairly impressive 2.35:1 widescreen transfer (1080/24p AVC) with a consistently high bitrate that hovers around 30Mbps for most of the film. Detail is generally very good throughout, allowing you to pick out every line in the craggy faces of the older actors, stitching in fabric, detailing on weapons and the like. Having said that, there are a number of scenes where things appear to go out of focus for a short while. This seems to be either an intentional stylistic choice or a flaw inherent to the source, rather than a transfer issue. The image has been heavily manipulated in post-production; colours are alternatively enriched and drained depending on the particular scene, and daytime sequences have had the contrast pumped right up to give that bleached out appearance that seems to be favoured nowadays. It does make the image look a little uncanny, but it was obviously an intentional creative decision. The darker scenes fair reasonably well, but they have also been manipulated as blacks often appear blue or grey. The image is generally free from unsightly artefacts—edge enhancement and DNR are not problematic—but there is occasional light banding during the darker sequences. I’ve seen both negative and positive appraisals of the US disc’s video quality, and my opinion falls somewhere in the middle. A lot of the ‘problems’ are due to stylistic choices and post-processing, so while the transfer might not be to everyone’s taste it seems unfair to be overly critical. It’s clearly the most enjoyable aspect of the release, and I was pleasantly surprised.
This is the first Sony title I've seen since Doghouse that doesn’t feature a lossless/uncompressed soundtrack. Instead, we're given a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo tracks in the original Thai. I went with the 5.1 for this review. The track is pretty engaging right from the outset, with almost constant use of all five channels for ambient and discrete effects. Rain falls all around the seating position, the jungle environment sounds very atmospheric, horses run past you, arrows fly over your head, bodies fly across the soundstage, and so on. Unfortunately there are a number of issues that negate any of the positives, the first of which concerns the bass. With a martial arts film such as this, you’d expect every punch and kick to be reinforced by a positively bone-crunching thud from the sub, but bass is actually a little bit muddy throughout. Dialogue is also problematic, and is often indistinct against the rest of the mix. This issue is compounded by the music, which is suitably upbeat (if somewhat forgettable) and fits the action well, but has a tendency to overpower the effects and dialogue. I’m not sure if these shortcomings are inherent to the original audio or a result of the lossy encoding. I would have liked a lossless track for comparison purposes, but reviews of the US disc seem to suggest that its Master Audio track has many of the same problems. Whatever the cause, the end result just isn’t that impressive. Oh, before I forget, subtitles are easy to read and flow quite nicely, even if they are a little ‘colloquial’.
Behind the Scenes Footage (25:05 SD): Hmm, this is basically just twenty-five minutes of raw on-set footage of the actors doing their thing. Everyone speaks Thai and there aren’t any English subtitles, and I found it quickly got old. Not the best of starts.
Photo Galley (02:08 HD): A series of photos are displayed in high-definition with accompanying music.
Trailer (03:52 HD): The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in high-definition with accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. It does a decent enough job of showcasing the various set-pieces, and actually goes as far as to name many of the on-screen moves (rather amusingly).
Teaser (02:39 HD): Think the trailer, but shorter. That’s about it really...
Press Interview Clips: There are four interviews on offer, including Tony Jaa (06:17 SD), Sarapong Chatree (01:09 SD), Panna Rittikari (05:46 SD), and Primrata Det-Udom (02:13 SD). They're not particularly memorable.
Ong Back: The Beginning is a convoluted mess of a picture, but it does feature some pretty impressive (and brutal) martial arts action. If that's your thing you might want to check it out, but to be honest the disc's fairly lacklustre presentation and bonus material only really warrant a rental at best. All I can say is, roll on the Blu-ray release of Tom yum goong, a Jaa film that actually has a bit of a plot.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 15th February 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Thai, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Thai
Subtitles: English HoH, English
Extras: Behind the Scenes, Interviews, Trailer, Teaser, Photo Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tony Jaa
Cast: Tony Jaa
Length: 98 minutes
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