Films, Martial arts, Reviews, Thailand

Yamada: Way Of The Samurai

Following the example of Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, this once again thrusts Muay Thai boxing into a period setting. Shame it’s kinda dull then…?

You have to worry about a film whose opening credits claim to be ‘based on historical facts’ and ‘the imagination of the films producers’ in order to ‘commemorate the 124th anniversary of Thailand-Japan diplomatic relations’. There’s also plenty of on-screen exposition before we even get started…

Set in 1612 in the Kingdom of Ayothaya a young samurai warrior Yamada Nagamasa (Seigi Ozeki, The Odd Couple) has left behind his homeland as a member of the Japanese volunteer regiment serving the sovereignty of the Thai people. But when Yamada uncovers treachery within those ranks, as Japanese samurai are disguising themselves as Hongsawadee warriors to raid villagers, they leave him for dead.

Nursed back to health in a remote village, he finds a new family there and learns the art of Muay Boran (Thai boxing) under wise monk Phra Khruu (Sorapong Chatree, Ong Bak 2, Beautiful Boxer), ascending to the position of royal bodyguard of King Naresuan The Great (Winai Kraibutr, Bang Rajan). He realises he must confront those who betrayed him, even at the cost of his own life…

Yamada: Way Of The Samurai – confusingly called Yamada: The Samurai Of Ayothaya on the credits, a more accurate title – starts off on the right foot. (Or should that be knee, or elbow, considering the Muay Thai style?) There’s a thrilling Thai boxing fight, then moments later some nicely shot swordplay. But that’s a bit misleading, as the action soon slows, and gets waddled in melodrama.

And therein lies the rub: with much of the cast being made up from real Muay Thai boxers like Buakaw Por. Pramuk, Saenchai Sor. Kingstar, Yodsanklai Fairtex, Anuwat Kaewsamrit and boxing Olympic gold medallists Mahnut and Somjit Jongjohor, acting really isn’t their strong point. Though Seigi Ozeki’s lead also leaves a lot to be desired, surprising considering his stage experience. There’s a real lack of depth to the performances all round, which wouldn’t be such a problem only sadly the film relies on you buying into them.

What could be a fine device, that of Yamada combining Muay Boran with samurai martial arts to become the greatest and most powerful warrior of all as mooted by his teacher Phra Khruu, seems rather lost – to my eyes at least! I really couldn’t see that idea being properly utilised and, if anything, the fights become more pedestrian as the film goes on, leading to a very lacklustre finale.

The action is often shot from afar, giving the stars lots of room to move around, no doubt, but loses the pace and tension. I couldn’t help feeling the choreography could be tighter, cleverer, and not rely so heavily on CGI for blood spurts. This lacks not only the stand-out action of Ong Bak 2, but even the dramatic performances – and you know when you say that you’re in trouble!

(I have to admit I found the high flat top hairstyles of Muay Boran warriors a bit distracting. I kept thinking Larry Blackmon, lead of ‘80s funk band Cameo, had himself cloned and they’d all gone off to learn Muay Thai. It was only the lack of red codpieces and breaking out into ‘Single Life’ or ‘Candy’ that made me realise my mistake.)

At least the film looks good, shot in scenic locations, though somehow it’s a bit sterile – like one of those TV holiday programmes. It won a Thailand National Film Association Awards for best score for Paphas Silp, which was deserved though, like the film, tends towards the melodramatic.

There’s rather an odd mix at play here, with plenty of hopeful talk about Thai and Japanese living and working together, only the main narrative device concerns treachery from some of the Japanese which ends up being kept a secret – I’m not sure how far this film goes to improving those ‘diplomatic relations’! (You don’t need to be great a maths to work out that the time between this story and today is far more than 124 years.)

A scan of Yamada Nagamasa’s real history on Wikipedia suggests a far more interesting film could have been created, one that didn’t rely on tried and tested (and frankly flogged to death!) action/martial art routes – I’m not sure this’ll please anyone!

Yamada: Way Of The Samurai is out now from Cine-Asia on Blu-ray and DVD.

Home media details

Distributor: Cine-Asia (UK)

Edition: DVD (2012)

Usual strong release from Cine-Asia has great sound and picture. Extras include an audio Commentary by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan; Deleted Scenes, which has some better scenes of Yamada coming to understand the Thai culture and living as a member of the village; Trailers; and a Cine-Asia Exclusive Featurette - Masters of the Ring, which should at least keep fans of Muay Thai happy.

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Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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