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Panna Rittikrai: The Man Behind Ong Bak and Tony Jaa


Anchalee Chaiworaporn (cross-publised with Udine Far East Film Festival catalogue)

  ©all rights reserved

Panna Rittikrai has made not one but two great contributions to the Thai film industry. In the mid-1980s to 1990s, he was known as the indie king of action, producing dozens of popular B-grade realistic action movies. In the new millennium he has opened a new chapter in Thai film history and the international market, as action choreographer for the highly successful and stunning Ong Bak and Tom-Yum Goong. Here is the man behind Ong Bak and Tony Jaa.

How did you start your career as an action choreographer?

I had no proper training. I learned martial arts from watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. It began with a Bruce Lee film, which I liked very much so I tried to imitate his punches and kicks. After school I would rush home to practice. This was before videotapes so I would go to cinema almost 200 times for some movies. When I mastered one move, I would go back to see another move. Sometimes I scoured newspaper ads for used martial arts books from Bangkoks Chinatown bookshops. Id ride from Khon Kaen in Northeastern Thailand to Bangkok just to buy these books or watch a new Jackie Chan movie.

I practiced in this way for about seven years. Then I studied gymnastics, taekwando, Muay Thai, judo, and krabi-krabong (Thai sword fighting) to improve my skills. I mixed these martial arts together. At that time, girls started to notice me, kids started to train with me. I was able to form my own team of stuntmen and that boosted my confidence. Most of them were still students who trained in their time off from studies.

I decided to move to Bangkok to work in the film industry under the famous action movie director Khom Akadej (aka Kom Akadet). Khom was working with Hong Kong stars like David Chiang (in 1982s Phet Tad Yok, literally Diamond slashing the jade) and making action films like Mountain Tigers (1979) and Payak Yeekay (1983, literally The tiger of Thai song and dance theatre). It was then that we got proper stunt training much more than just typical punches and kicks. I felt that I was on the right road.

Were you the first person to use stuntmen in Thai films?

You could call them action actors, or stuntmen. But there was no established system. Older films had at most swordfighting, and the actors were brave enough to do it themselves! Those action stars even fought with Bruce Lee when he was here in Bangkok or Saraburi Province for one of his films.

I was in the stunt department first. Before working with Khom, I had never seen a movie set, or a dolly for tracking shots. I helped out in every department: directing, cinematography, screenwriting, editing, cleaning up everything.

How did you start making your own films?

In 1983, after working with Khom for three years, I raised funding for my own film. It was difficult because I was a new director. For my first film, Born To Fight (1979, remade in 2004), I did practically everything. I thought up the story and how to combine it with the action. I acted, directed, edited, and choreographed the action. I found the lead actress at the location where we were shooting. She acted for free which allowed me to use the budget for more raw stocks and sets.

Apex theatres showed the film for only four or five days in Bangkok and the response was bad. They programmed the film only because the thrilling action sequences were unlike anything before in Thai cinema. But when I showed this movie in the provinces, the responses were phenomenal! Movie houses and open-air theatres were fully booked. It was shown everywhere and made a lot of profit for the regional distributors who would later finance my films. From that point on, all my movies were released in Bangkok and the provinces.

How long did you keep doing this?

About a decade or so. I acted in a lot of movies to get money to make my own movies because I couldnt do what I wanted to do in other peoples films. I was in a lot of movies, about three a month. I typically played same role, so people started to get bored with me!

I made a few of my own movies, such as Kong Tub Tuen (literally mean, the radical army) and Puen Kliew. There were moderately successful but the returns were not enough to offset the investment.

Teem flicks and B-grade horror and action films were popular from the mid-1980s to 1997,with over a hundred titles made per year. When these films went into decline Panna went to choreograph fights for TV drama series and for Five Star Production film studio. His protégé Tony Jaa worked as a stuntman. Then, in the early 2000s, director Prachya Pinkaew called him.


When Prachya contacted you, did you think it was going to be for a big project?

Yes, because he was from a major studio, Grammy Entertainment. When I walked into the building, it was very exciting and humbling. At the meeting, I mentioned I knew a boy who was very good at martial arts. He asked, As good as you?. I said we were from different eras. [Panna is 15 years older than Jaa]. He asked me if Tony Jaa was as good as Jackie Chan, and I nodded. Obviously he did not believe me and thought I was exaggerating. I was downhearted. But then he said something reassuring: Who knows, he might be one in a million.

Panna took two years to prove himself. Taking Prachyas main idea that Tony Jaa should adopt a Thai action-style, Panna trained Tony Jaa for a year in the arts of Muay Thai. They made a demo reel and showed it to Prachya.

Why did you have to make a demo? Why not just perform in front of him?

If we just performed in front of him, he wouldnt see the moving picture, the story. I wanted him to see the filmed version. We named it Khon Saraphat Pit (literally A man of many poisons). Tony Jaa played a man who is proficient in all martial arts. Prachya watched it in the lab and was expressionless. Later he called me: Panna, dont show it to anyone. And as for the post-production fees, Ill take care of them.

How was the action choreography in Ong Bak different from the previous movies?

It was much different. It was not Jackie Chan and not Jet Li. It was Muay Thai, which I taught myself. But of course I did not know it as well as the real Muay Thai teachers. It was a new kind of martial arts which worked well with Tony Jaas unique talents. If the move required him to fly in the air, Tony Jaa would fly higher and further. We added more movement and put in the real action. The result was the raw power that people in Thailand and overseas loved. When Tony Jaa was kneed, he was actually kneed. Tony Jaa performed his own stunts and they were real.

How come Tony Jaa had so much talent?

The first time he studied with me, he actually had no martial arts foundation. He imitated Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. After graduating high school, I told him to pursue physical education in college. Then, he learned the craft of filmmaking film technique, stunt work and developed his own unique talent that complemented my choreography.

What was Tony Jaas unique talent?

He could jump higher and stay up in the air longer than others. He had immense determination. He would die for movies. He did not want to do it just for the fame, but to prove that he could do it. He was a genius in the martial arts he could learn any discipline. If Jackie Chan could spin two rounds, Tony Jaa would train until he could do three. If he could not succeed today, he would practice tomorrow and the day after until he got it right.

How about other actors, like Dan Chupong and Jija Yanin?

Dan can do everything but lacks the charm. We must get him to do something completely different. We are working on that.

As for Jija, she could be as good as Tony Jaa. She is now perhaps at 40% his capability. But she has cute looks and the position of foremost female action star is still vacant! As for the kids, it was a similar idea.

What had made your action choreography a success?

Watching lots of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films, and making almost a hundred action movies. I think I have a unique point of view. For example, weve all seen a jump over a parked car, or a leg spread, and a slide, but it was exhilarating to see a leg-spread slide under a parked car.

In Ong Bak, I choreographed every action scene myself. Tony Jaa was a long and high jump in his hometown so he was well trained in this area. He could do the jump shots in Ong Bak naturally but I got the crew to arrange the tree branches to give him more confidence in doing the stunts. And if he could step on other actors without the help of wire-work, what would happen? What if there were 10 people instead of one? We did it and the world was amazed.

When you choreograph the fight, do you think of the audience?

All the time. And I use myself as the tape measure. The action should not have been done on screen before. I may look at Jackie Chan and Jet Li for inspiration, but I will do it differently. I know they use wires but I will not use them. And it works because when Tony Jaa went to perform in the United States and Japan, we never brought wires with us. Everyone believes us now when we say its the real thing.

Do Hong Kong action films influence you today?

Not much. Jackie Chan reused his own stunts in a new way. For example, in the Hollywood film Rush Hour, all his fight scenes were basically his old ones, but the equipment was better and the opponents were different (Westerners instead of Asians).

The audience will remember, so I have to constantly improve myself and invent something new.

Does this mean you have to watch more movies now?

Everyday. But I tend to watch old Jackie Chan movies more than Hollywood action because the latter are just full of computer-generated special effects.

What is the next trend in Thai action films?

Not so many movies. Now we have a female action star like Jija Yanin in Chocolate and child action stars in Somtum and Power Kids. We have expanded to different groups (women, children) but not invented much that is new in terms of the action itself. We have not had something as radically new as Ong Bak.



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