Asian culture has swept across the postwar American landscape like no other, imparting a culinary and pop legacy almost as profound as American culture has on the rest of the world. China was the early winner in cultural supremacy wars, with takeout on every street corner and kung fu in every grindhouse, trickling down to everything from hip-hop records to animated vegetarian screeds. Japan followed suit, and ninjas, anime, and sushi dominated the scene. Now it might be Thailand's time.
If I recall my Carmen Sandiego correctly, Thailand is the one Asian country that has never been conquered by a foreign invader. So it's a crossroads of its own making, influenced but not coerced. And you can see the counterpoints to Chinese cultural touchstones. In video games, Fei Long vs. Sagat. On menus, Mongolian Beef vs. Panang Chicken. In theaters, Jet Li vs. Tony Jaa. In each case, the Thai version is a bit spicier, a bit more exotic, a bit more alluring. And, just possibly, a bit awesomer.
I'm coming close to heresy to my own principles here. I eat from a Chinese buffet near my office once a week like clockwork, and I've idolized Jet Li ever since I saw Lethal Weapon 4. I don't want to believe that familiarity breeds contempt, but I have to consider the possibility that I'm being tantalized away from true love by a lust for the exotic.
Don't get me wrong -- I'd probably eat at that same Chinese buffet once a week for the rest of my life, but they don't have anything as delicious as a Thai curry. I have a signed poster of Tony Jaa in my apartment, and I'm not sure Jet Li has ever made a movie better than Ong-Bak -- frankly, I'm not sure that anyone has ever made a better martial arts movie. With Li claiming his own retirement from serious martial arts films following the superb Fearless, Jaa's the greatest martial arts star in movies today.
Like Street Fighter's Sagat, Tony Jaa practices Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, a whirlwind of lithe gymnastics, incredible acrobatics, and really painful-looking blows inflicted not with punches but with knee-and-elbow moves with names like "the elephant's tusk." Along with his countryman Dan Chupong, whose skill and charisma perhaps put him on the level of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jaa's leading a slow wave of Muay Thai movies to our shores.
Leading the nouvelle Thai vague, of course, was Ong-Bak, the first movie I can remember in my lifetime released in theaters featuring Muay Thai. Following was its unofficial sequel, The Protector, reuniting Ong-Bak's director and star. Then came Dan Chupong, a minor character in Ong-Bak, who starred in Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior, released under Weinstein Films' direct-to-DVD Asian import label. Of course, now that the DVD floodgates have been opened, there's really no limit to how much will come. (And there's no telling how much wheat will be among the chaff.)
Jaa is a force onscreen, but with a soft voice and strangely delicate face on his wiry, chiseled body, very unlike Jet Li's stoic features or Bruce Lee's ferocious intensity. On film, Thai boxing is more acrobatic and less compact than kung fu, and Jaa makes leaps, mid-air body contortions, that barely seem humanly possible. This led Ong-Bak's makers to run a disclaimer with their ad campaign: "no wires, no stunt doubles, no CGI." (The young Jet Li was so fast with his own moves that he either had to be filmed at high speed and then slowed down so that the moves would be visible, or to slow himself down for the benefit of the camera.) The charisma of Jaa's violence is undeniable, hypnotic, breathtaking.
However, staying in shape takes a toll on the production schedules of a would-be international action star, and Jaa's eight-hour-a-day practice regimen makes it hard to squeeze in much acting. He's only starred in two movies in the past five years, and is working on a third -- by comparison, in the same time, Jet Li has starred in four and completed two or three others. If Jaa wants to claim the mantle he so rightly deserves, he'll need to step up the pace.
There's nothing else standing in the way of his dominance, since he's already conquered the air and the screen... I just hope my favorite Chinese buffet understands.