Spat with star adds extra spice to 'Tom Yum Goong 2'

While tension with action hero Tony Jaa has spelled more peril than promise for the eagerly awaited sequel, director Prachya Pinkaew says his new thriller strikes the right balance between action and plot

Like all good directors Prachya Pinkaew is putting a positive spin on his latest project, despite a very public falling out between its reluctant star Tony Jaa and the film production house .

(Photos by Pattanapong Hirunard)

"It was not a personal conflict between me and Jaa but the issue was about his contract with the company," says Prachaya.

"We can still work together as colleagues as you will see in Tom Yum Goong 2 _ the film shooting ran smoothly until we finished."

Film star Jaa has become embroiled in a dispute with the production house that's been unfolding in the public spotlight since the beginning of this month.

The boss of Prachya's film corporation, Somsak Techaratanaprasert, in charge of Sahamongkol Film, is threatening Jaa with legal action over his planned appearance in the US action movie franchise The Fast and the Furious, claiming Jaa is still under exclusive contract with his company.

But Jaa _ real name Panom Yeerum _ has fired back saying his contract was already terminated and he is being subjected to a form of "slavery".

In an interview with the Thai press last week, Prachya said Somsak was fed up with Jaa who had "betrayed the people who had brought him fame".

When Brunch spoke to Prachya he was in a far more forgiving mood and reticent to talk about the conflict.

However, he was willing to open up about the difficulties in rekindling interest in the popular Tom Yum Goong franchise and the challenges Thai directors face in steering away from cliched genres.

Already he's thinking about directing a horror film and casting around for new action heroes not only in Thailand but overseas.

"I want to do all kinds of movies.

"I've written some scripts for the movie I will make after Tom Yum Goong 2, and it will absolutely be different from my previous style of movies.

"I'm thinking of pushing for some new fighting actors and actresses because they've sent in some really great videos _ but making someone famous will take a long time and a lot of money. Also, they still don't know much about acting in movies."

But hedging his bets, Prachya plucked one actor yet to bust any big-screen chops for his upcoming film: American Marrese Crump, who hails from Florida.

"He contacted me on Facebook and sent in his fighting video. I've received a lot of these videos over the years, but his was outstanding."

Crump learned how to fight in Indonesia, where he trained in pencak silat, the local martial art.

"When he fought with Jaa, it was amazing. I didn't want to cut any of those scenes from the film."

PICKING UP AGAIN

Prachya assembled an all-star ensemble for the highly anticipated sequel to action flick Tom Yum Goong (aka Warrior King and The Protector), which opens on Oct 23.

Tom Yom Goong, famous for its elaborate muay Thai scenes, hit the top of the domestic box-office and fourth in the US seven years ago.

''[Tony] Jaa and Mum [Pechtai Wongkhamlao] are the main characters, while Yaya Ying [Ratha Po-Ngam] plays Jaa's enemy,'' Prachya tells Brunch. ''The story continues seven years after the first, just like the real time between the films. The fans want to see exciting action, so the new movie is full of impressive scenes of hunting and battles that are even better than the first.''

Prachya is also known as the mastermind behind successful action movies including the Ong Bak series, Chocolate, The Kick and Elephant White.

''People are excited to see Jeeja Yanin fight Tony Jaa _ they're all really talented at it,'' Prachya says.

''I knew Yaya Ying even before her first music album when I was working at GMM Grammy, and I realised back then she was a talented actress. Yaya Ying has never starred in a fighting role before, but her dancing skills have allowed her to really adapt to it.''

The movie also features American hip hop star Robert Diggs _ known to most as RZA from the Wu Tang Clan. Prachya met Diggs at a screening of the first Ong Bak in the US.

''He learned fighting from the Shaolin [school of fighting] in China. I was confident in casting him _ he's really dedicated to the job and talented,'' Prachya says.

NEW MOVIES, NEW MOVES

Prachya says that although he's confident in his work, he hopes that Muay Thai still has the same dedicated fans as nearly a decade ago.

''The second Tom Yum Goong will be tougher because the story isn't fresh, and this is a problem that a lot of sequels face,'' he says. ''The movie is already known by people around the world, so that's why as a producer I really have to focus on the action elements _ I know what action fans want. They will see more exciting action, more thrills, more risks and more different styles of muay Thai.''

The new styles of muay Thai were introduced by the film's star, Jaa. Prachya adds that Jaa is a master of the martial art.

Says Prachya: ''We've put so many different things in the second movie. I think the most exciting part is when the characters hunt down a motorbike wan [gang], which is something unique to Thailand and reflects our culture.''

But for now, Prachya says he would be grateful if the movie reaches ''just half'' of the success of the first.

''The first Tom Yum Goong was produced at exactly the right time, and there hadn't been anything like it before,'' he says.

APATHY IN THE AUDIENCE

Prachya tells Brunch that Thailand is gaining momentum as a powerhouse for movie production, as its films gain more international recognition.

''When Tom Yum Goong reached No4 at the US box-office, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a great moment,'' he says.

''Previously, movies like that would only find a good reception if they were coming out of Hong Kong, but now Thailand is becoming a fierce competitor when it comes to martial arts films.''

But the domestic movie industry is still held back, Prachya says, by the fact Thai audiences often lack the desire to watch Thai films. He adds this puts the responsibility of making better films on directors and that the government should lend a hand in giving a boost to the industry.

''Compared with the rest of Asia, Thailand is still eclipsed by Korea, Japan and China,'' he says.

''Thais are less interested and active movie-goers than in other countries. If you compare Thailand and South Korea, South Korean movies tend to sell 10 times more tickets for a best-seller.''

Prachya admits that many Thai movies are disappointing.

''The issue with many directors here is the idea behind the movie. We're good at skill, but not at ideas _ and Thai movies rarely have a smart plot to go along with good production.

''Thai movies have also, for a long time, faced four major problems, which are economic crises, political conflicts, natural disasters and most importantly, copyright violations. The government can surely help the industry with the issue of copyright violation, but it is yet to be serious.''

PAST THE PEAK

While Thai movie plots almost invariably centre on ghost stories and romantic comedies, Prachya argues that the industry needs something new if it's going to succeed in the long-term.

''The Thai audience is just the same as audiences around the world. They want to see something new to keep their interest, or otherwise it just won't become popular,'' he says.

''I think this is the real challenge for movie producers. Even classic plots, the ghost movies and the romantic comedies, need to have a stronger connection with people and the audience. We passed the peak moment of the industry in 2005, when both Thais and other countries were excited to see our movies. Now, the industry has to prove itself again.''

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