Tony Jaa might be the world’s biggest action star you haven’t heard of. The 33-year-old Thai martial-arts master garnered international acclaim thanks to his starring role in 2003’s Ong Bak, a freewheeling romp about a villager who travels to Bangkok to retrieve a stolen statue — with violent results. The film took two years to reach the States, but Jaa’s balletic movements and wirework-free stunts made him an instant cult figure. Now comes Ong Bak 2, Jaa’s directorial debut. (He shared duties with his fight choreographer, Panna Rittikrai.) For his first time behind the camera, Jaa demonstrates no lack of ambition, jettisoning the original film’s giddy spirit for a brooding, more emotionally layered fifteenth-century tale of revenge, romance, and Buddhist philosophy. Currently filming Ong Bak 3 in Thailand, Jaa chatted with Vulture via e-mail, through a translator.
Ong Bak 2 is your directorial debut. How was the transition from actor to actor-director?
When I was an actor [on Ong Bak], I was concerned only about my script. But now that I’m the director, I have to truly understand the whole picture. I had to study all kinds of martial arts, Buddhist beliefs about faith and karma, and the consequences of happiness and sorrow. I had to be scrupulous on every detail. I surveyed the locations myself. Making this movie was very challenging because Ong Bak was well made — everyone knows that movie and [is] impressed by it. I had a feeling that I could not let the audience down.
Ong Bak 2 isn’t just an action film but also a complicated narrative that involves extensive flashbacks, a mystery, a romance, and a revenge story line. That’s a lot to juggle.
I want to give the audience something more, something different than they experienced from Ong Bak. I wanted to make sure Ong Bak 2 had dimensions, a good story line and [was] packed with emotion as well as action. It is a challenge having these elements in a film, but the key to this is to keep things in balance and to have good control of the rhythms.
In the press notes you say that you wanted the movie “to be a philosophical action film that offers action as well as Buddhist teachings.” Why?
I believe it’s important for an action film, regardless [of] which country it’s from, to have its own philosophy to guide the story. Buddhist teaching is what I believe — it’s what guided me making this movie. I think many people can relate to the concept of faith and karma.
What would you say to action fans who don’t care about Buddhist philosophy and just want lots of violence?
I tried to create breathtaking and spectacular fight scenes like no other action film. But the core of this film that we want to convey to audiences is that the ultimate martial arts is not beating everybody but [rather] not having to fight at all.
During the filming, you went missing for several weeks. Your absence was explained as owing to stress. What happened?
This is my first time as a director, and it is common to face some difficulties and pressure. I think it is important to take time to produce a good film [rather] than just to hurry — [then] the quality of the movie is not as good. I gave myself time to think over things, to see everything as clearly as possible, or just see things as they are.
Ong Bak had a playful, energetic spirit, while Ong Bak 2 is a darker, more somber film. Does one film better represent your own personality?
I think making a movie is like drawing or creating an art piece. The artwork reflects part of your personality, but not all. As a director, I think it is important to keep a space between yourself and your film. It’s like you are in the movie, but at the same time you are watching it from the outside.