Raging Phoenix is fairly axiomatic of what a Thai action film looks like now that Tony Jaa, the figurehead that marked Thailand as the place for new martial arts movies, has absconded to a monastery and forsaken making movies for the foreseeable future. In his absence, tough new stars are making their bids to be the next big thing, including former Jaa collaborator Dan Chupong (Dynamite Warrior, Born to Fight). But the one fighter that has stood out most amid the exported Thai stars is JeeJa Yanin, a ferocious fighter that also happens to be a woman.
In Raging Phoenix, her second feature, Yanin proves that she's here to stay, bouncing around with appropriate brutality and proving why many Thai films, unlike the Hong Kong titles that set the standard for the subgenre, foreground emotional hyperbole over playful violence. It's all about impact: Bones crunch as knees and elbows make contact with skulls and rib cages with an amazing level of gymnastic achievement. And yet, when Jaa bonked heads, his invocation of elegance from a totally ruthless sensibility was awe-inspiring: Jaa could make drunk boxing look disgusting and graceful. I'm still not sure that the same can be said about Yanin.
Yanin plays Deu, a nigh-suicidal drummer looking for a reason to end it all. Deu gets abducted by human traffickers shortly after a drunken binge, but is miraculously rescued by handsome stranger Sanim (Patrick Tang) from kidnappers wearing some kind of boots with pogo springs and jagged metal blades attached to them. Sanim's the leader of a trio of break-dancing beach bums that like to get wasted and fight. This isn't just a kick for them though: It's a legitimate lifestyle choice. They practice the Meyraiyuth style of drunken fighting, a style that emphasizes fluidity and instinctive movements over structured attacks. It's a fitting m.o. for Yanin, whose character finds purpose from learning Meyraiyuth, considering that she's struggling to upend chauvinist thinking by obliterating her cosmetic beauty (she's not a he!) by striving for a fighting-induced asexual frenzy. She might have achieved it in Chocolate, in which she plays an autistic woman who can fight almost instinctively, but she holds back too much in Raging Phoenix.
Which is ironic considering how, after a point, screenwriter Sompope Vejchapipat gets tired of his preposterous but generically sound plot and decides to crank up what critic Grady Hendrix rightfully called "the crack factor" of the film's cheesy melodrama. When Sanim, Deu's potential romantic, tells her about Pie, his abducted wife, Deu tries her luck and earnestly asks, "If I were an alcoholic drink, what kind would I be?" as sentimental piano music plays in the background.
This, incidentally, is before we're told that the Jaguar Gang, the group responsible for kidnapping Pie and for almost nabbing Deu, is abducting people to steal their pheromones to turn them into perfume. The scene where we're shown a group of Jaguars prowling around a marketplace in search of Deu, whose pheromones apparently look just like Pepe le Pew's stink lines, is the apex of a ludicrous premise delivered with an astonishing straight face. It's shot in such a crude way, with lens filters that even a younger David Fincher would have thought garish, that while you can't imagine someone thinking the idea, let alone the scene itself, was a good idea at one point, the proof is right there in black, yellow, and green. This is Thai martial arts cinema right now: over-the-top and probably completely oblivious but somehow remarkably effective when it counts most.
Yanin does her best with thin material, but her character's maturation overshadows her ability to totally cut loose in every scene but the last one. There, she doesn't fight the head of the Jaguar Gang, also a woman—she trades blows with her. It's a guileless fight scene whose mostly functional choreography can't hide the fact that what we're watching is naked bloodsport (not literally, sadly). We watch for someone to fall, not to marvel in the spectacle of two trained athletes going at it. The scene proves that Janin might be as good as it gets when it comes to that uniquely Thai style of overkill fighting. But one can always hope that Jaa will come back soon.
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The film's proudly squalid, neon-pastel-color-filtered-to-death aesthetic in its original is pretty fugly. You can form a coherent picture of what's happening in every fight scene, which is refreshing thanks to the prevalence of Nolanesque and Greengrassian elisions in American films, but it's all shot on digital camcorders. Many scenes are teeming with so much grain that you might instinctively try to adjust the nonexistent rabbit ears on your TV while watching it. The audio soundtracks are very crisp so you make out every grunt, clink of glass and collision of bone-on-bone.
The making-of featurettes for the film confirm my suspicion that the filmmakers are totally un-self-conscious and hence aren't really aware that kidnapping girls because they smell nice is an inherently screwy idea. Director Rashane Limtrakul gabs about how the film is a bildungsroman for JeeJa Yanin's Deu and how he believes every fight scene has a love story behind it. And for a moment, his sincerity is almost convincing. Then you remember: The Jaguar Gang puts what looks like Saran Wrap around a girl right before trying to extract her pheromones. No dice, pally. The behind-the-scenes feature of the film is, however, surprisingly interesting in a voyeuristic kind of way. Many of the sequences shown aren't so much outtakes or bloopers, but rather fly-on-the-wall footage of what the stunts in the movie look like before they're ready for final cut. It's a slightly grungier view of the stuntmen (and two stuntwomen!) at work and a very satisfying one.
Raging Phoenix isn't pretty, but then again, that's why it's a sign of the times for martial arts cinema.