Leap into the limelight
Action star Phanom Yeeram’s fabulous moves are the highlights of new movie `Ong-Bak’
Story by NILUBOL PORNPITAGPAN
Photo by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
Most movie stars impress fans through their charm and beauty, but with new local action star Phanom Yeeram, the attraction is all in the fists, elbows and feet.
The self-trained Phanom performs elaborate stunts and ballet-like boxing in his debut film, Ong-Bak, which opens on Friday.
Movie-goers will see Phanom performing the full repertoire of Thai boxing — as well as jumping across a boiling vat, stepping over rows of men’s shoulders, running in the air, and performing somersaults and back-flips to aim deadly blows at his "enemies’’.
This is the guy whose stunt work made Robin Shou look so cool in Mortal Kombat 2, and who boosted Ruengsak "James"Loyshusak’s tough-guy persona in local action flick Gang Gratack Guan.
Ever seen that TV advert featuring Samo Hung and an energy drink? That was Phanom, doubling for the Hong Kong actor, who grasped the elephant’s tusks and then somersaulted over its back.
No more long shots and stand-in work now, though; Phanom has moved to centre-stage.
The sneak preview of Ong-Bak last month garnered warm reviews.
"I’d like to say, from the heart of a rural boy, that I’m so happy to have got the chance to present ancient Thai boxing on film, in a way that’s true to the old forms,"said the 27-year-old star with a smile.
"I’m so glad that people called after the preview and said the movie was fun and that they loved the action,"he added.
A native of Surin, Phanom was inspired by Jackie Chan’s action movies and was imitating kung fu fighting by the age of 10. It was then that he started dreaming of starring in action films, like his idol.
After completing secondary school, he became an apprentice of Khon Kaen-based Panna Ritthikrai, producer/director/star of many B-movie action flicks. Panna took him in but he also persuaded his young student to go back to formal education.
Phanom went back to his studies but in his spare time he learned about the martial arts from Panna’s stuntmen and started working odd jobs for the lighting crew and cameramen.
Encouraged by his mentor, Phanom went on to study at Maha Sarakham Physical Education College, where he got more solid grounding in marital arts. Soon he became a star athlete, winning golds in krabi krabong (an indigenous martial art involving the use of swords and long wooden staffs) and excelling in running, gymnastics, the high jump and long jump. He also picked up the basics of judo, joined an off-campus krabi krabong club, learned new stunt routines and started staging shows at his college and other schools in the area.
When he graduated from the college two years later, Panna encouraged Phanom to follow his ambition to seek a part in a big movie, where he’d be able to show off stunts the young man had created himself.
Stunt work from Hollywood movies came in but the action content was rather less than Phanom and Panna had in mind. The two became interested in muay boran, an ancient form of Thai kick boxing, and sought out experts to learn more about the art. They studied it for six years with the idea of including it in a movie one day.
"We wanted to present muay boran in a way that’s true to the original style. This is one of our national treasures but it’s never before been featured in a Thai movie with a Thai actor playing the lead,"said Phanom.
To realise their dream, the two sought funding for a trailer, showing off the best stunts they could come up with to big-name producers in Bangkok.
Unfortunately, their first attempt failed as the film stock they’d bought turned out to be out of date. New funding had to be found and the whole thing done again.
The trailer impressed Prachya Pinkaew of Baa Ramm Ewe, a production house under the aegis of Saha Mongkol Film. And the rest is history.
Ong-Bak is the story of a small village which suffers the theft of the head of its respected Buddha image. Phanom must try to get it back, using his martial art skills and survival instincts.
Phanom choreographed all the stunts in consultation with Panna, who, naturally enough, was stunt coordinator for the project. "We taped sequences on video first,"Phanom explained, "so that we’d be able to pick up on any faults and correct them before we started the actual shoot.’’
After watching his finished film with much satisfaction, Phanom took another look at his collection of classic Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies, to compare the martial arts.
"I think we have more elaborate fight scenes than those movies. Thai boxing is unique. It has a very graceful repertoire. We’ve tried to make the moves clear to the audience,"said Phanom.
The pace of his life has changed with the new movie — these days he is busy with interviews and various screenings.
Foreign agencies have also started making contact. Ong-Mak will be screened in Japan, Hong Kong and Hungary for a start, and is sure to go further.
Phanom doesn’t yet know what his next project will be. For now, he’s focusing on staging a special charity screening of Ong-Bak at a theatre in Maha Sarakham. He wants to raise funds to support the students club at Maha Sarakham Physical Education College from which he graduated.
"I’m happy that I can give something back to my old school,"said the new movie star.