I spun up the disc for Raging Phoenix with some reservations. I’d seen the trailer and formed a number of assumptions: martial arts film, female lead, some sort of custom mixture of Muay Thai and hip-hop dancing. The latter sounds like something thrown into the mix by a marketing executive early in production: we’ve got to appeal to a younger crowd, people, so you’re gonna add some b-boy stylings and perhaps chuck a music video or two in there to appeal to the youth demographic.
What I didn’t realise is that hip-hop is not the only thing they added to the stew. Drunken boxing, human trafficking, ex-cops with peculiarly keen olfactory senses and a large collection of colourful sets (from huge industrial playgrounds to lurid underground catacombs) give the film a madly unpredictable, overloaded feel that’s hard to dislike for long.
Yanin “Jija” Vismitananda (in her second feature after 2008’s Chocolate) stars as Deu, a young girl who’s hit rock bottom: her parents are absent, her boyfriends keep leaving her, and she’s been kicked out of the band she drums for. Dejected and alone, she’s abducted off the street by a van full of evildoers, only to find herself rescued by Sanim (Patrick Tang). Sanim’s style of martial arts is unorthodox but effective, and Deu demands that he (and his partners, the consistently named brothers Pigshit and Dogshit, and their more mysterious senior Bullshit) train her up and let her join them.
Our team of freelance do-gooders have a plan as well as rockin’ moves and an awesome beachside base — they’re after a team of human traffickers, the same group that tried to snatch Deu. It’s at this point that the roller coaster they’ve tied the story to gains speed and starts to bank sharply. Every time you think you’ve got a handle on where the film’s going, another big piece of backstory appears and the car lurches sideways.
Raging Phoenix has the team behind Ong Bak running the show, with Panna Rittikrai supervising the action and Prachya Pinkaew producing, and it shows. The film is full of huge action set-pieces, and they’re enough fun that the initially rather artificial hip-hop and Drunken Master influences aren’t as irritating as you’d think… after a while, you find yourself cheering for the action director! There’s a bone-crunching impact to many of the fight sequences, particularly once we get into the second half of the picture, and while it doesn’t look nearly as serious as some of the stunts in the upcoming Bangkok Knockout (here’s the trailer on YouTube if you want to see what I mean), there is the occasional gasp-worthy display of athleticism.
Jija Yanin handles the physical side of things incredibly well. I haven’t seen Chocolate, her first film, but it’s on my list now — I haven’t seen an actress front-and-centre in an action film doing her own stunts like this for a very long time. She’s got a waifish charm in the dramatic scenes, too, but the action is so much the focus of Raging Phoenix that we don’t get that much of a chance to see what else she can do. Patrick Tang deserves a mention as well for his performance as the brooding, damaged Sanim — he handles pushing much of the story along as well as a lot of the action, and he’s more than impressive.
All in all, Raging Phoenix is fun. Undeniably mad, jam-packed with action, filled with playful, colour-saturated sets and guaranteed to make you smile.