This is not the kind of entertainment news I like to write about but it could have a far-reaching impact on the future of Thai action cinema and its greatest champion. In confirmation of swelling rumors and reports emerging from Thailand over the last several weeks, Variety now reports that international action star Tony Jaa has walked away unannounced from production on his directorial debut, ONG BAK 2, just as it was reaching the final stretch of production and was being marketed overseas at Cannes with an impressive promotional video.
Somsak Techaratanaprasert, a spokesman for the film’s production company, Sahamongkol, held a press conference and stated that the film would be completed on time for its scheduled release on December 5th.
Prachya Pinkaew, director of the original ONG BAK confirmed that he will be stepping in to complete what remains of the shoot and edit the entire footage.
“Jaa has little experience directing,” said Pinkaew. “He’s spent nearly $7.8 million. The film is almost finished, so I’ll try to see what I can do with the footage that he’s shot.”
Meanwhile, rumors have been flying around in the Thai media speculating on reasons for Jaa’s absence since June. Techaratanaprasert put to rest suggestions that the star had run away with the film’s investment capital.
“I guarantee that this is not a case of financial fraud, and I have no intention of pursuing any legal action against him,” Techaratanaprasert said. “We’re running behind schedule, and some of our international contracts have been cancelled because of that. I know he loves this film very much, so I just want him to finish the film because there’s only a little work left.”
Jaa’s family have reportedly come forth to suggest that the star has been under great stress and literally retreated into the jungle. Fans of Jaa who are familiar with his background will know that he was raised in a rural part of North Eastern Thailand where he and his family raised elephants.
In other words, Jaa has pulled a Dave Chappelle. Chappelle is the popular American comedian who, at the height of his fame, abruptly walked off the set of his hit Comedy Central series in 2005 to retreat in South Africa. He eventually cited stress and disagreements with the show’s producers as reasons.
What makes this situation far worse is that Jaa was the star and the director of a feature film so all production literally ground to a halt. Making matters worse, other sources in Thailand are suggesting that Jaa ran the film way over budget. I haven’t confirmed these numbers but the roughly $2.7 million budget approved by the investors may have swelled to as much as $8 million.
Additional rumors suggest misuse of the budget and frustration from Jaa over his contract.
As an outside observer, it looks to me like Jaa took on too much responsibility too quickly and at the wrong time. Unlike many of his Hong Kong peers, Jaa has had a very short rise to superstardom in an industry that lacks the same mature support network of Hong Kong’s once thriving action filmmaking community. It took over 20 years and dozens of movies for Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung to reach the level of international fame that Jaa has managed to claim after only starring in a few movies. Years of working alongside dozens of equally talented stunt actors and filmmakers gave the Hong Kong stars all the time they needed to learn, not only the craft of filmmaking but also the business of it.
It’s still too early and there is still too little information to accurately project how this will all shake out. It looks fairly certain that ONG BAK 2 will be completed but what becomes of it is anyone’s guess. Uncertainty like this is like the plague to potential buyers. It’s going to hurt overseas sales and distribution.
Artistically speaking, the film will not be the same once Pinkaew gets his hands on it. I can’t say if it will be worse or better. However, that promo footage showed tremendous potential for Jaa to surpass Pinkaew as an action director. Then again, Jaa’s current actions cast doubt on how much involvement he had with the creation of that promo.
If Jaa wasn’t up to the task of directing and starring I just wish he would have had the good judgment to say something before accepting the task. When offered the chance to direct a big screen version of THE GREEN HORNET, Kevin Smith wisely admitted the limits of his directing ability and bowed out graciously instead of getting in over his head.
Yet even the best directors stumble. Terry Gilliam, one of the most gifted filmmakers of our time has had production nightmares throughout his career, none worse than the disaster that befell his ill-fated take on “Don Quixote.”
Unfortunately, this current situation with Tony Jaa could be career ending for a number of reasons. Investors will be less likely to back him now while overseas distributors will be even more cautious. Likewise, you can’t walk out on hundreds of people all depending on you and not expect to garner some ill will. I doubt he wants his action film career to end and certainly none of the millions of fans he has around the world do.
We can only hope that this situation will get sorted out and Jaa gets his head screwed back on. He’s still the best martial arts star of his generation and it would be a shame to see his talents thrown away due to lack of stress and financial management. I’ve long been concerned about the level of support he’s receiving in Thailand. There are undoubtedly a lot of good people working in the industry there but I wonder if its time for Jaa to move on to Hollywood where his action might get dumbed down but at least he’ll have enough support and guidance to carry on. He could always take that experience back to Thailand, much as Yuen Woo-ping and Jet Li have done.
UPDATE: Tony Jaa came out of hiding for the first time since walking off the set of ONG BAK 2 to give a tearful interview for local Thai TV where he said that he was ready to return to work. Meanwhile, local tabloids are having a pitiful field day with the unfolding drama by latching onto rumors that Jaa is obsessed with black magic. The star actually had to address these rumors and deny them during the interview. Blogging on the interview, Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal calls it a soap opera and says, “it’s painful to see [Jaa] like this.”
See our related thread in the Kung Fu Cinema Forums.
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (2008) • Tony Jaa