'Bak' in business

Tony Jaa's latest has a strange trip to the screen

Arguably the most anticipated Thai movie ever, Tony Jaa's "Ong Bak 2" premiered this week to thousands of filmgoers happy to get a break from the real-life political drama playing out in the streets of their capital.

As if on cue for the premiere, a weeklong sit-in that nearly halted travel and trade at Bangkok's two major airports dispersed Tuesday after the courts disbanded the ruling party targeted by protestors.

Back in the city, martial artists in period garb leapt to thunderous drumming outside a modern shopping mall cineplex while inside, Thailand's first international action hero deftly snuck in and out of nine theaters, avoiding paparazzi and TV cameras.

"We've had big problems in Thailand. We've had a war between pro-government and anti-government groups. So it's a relief to see such a great movie like this and feel proud to be Thai again," the Thai comedian known as Tiger said at the premiere.

It would appear that Jaa, the film's star and first-time director (real name Panom Yeerum), could finally breathe a sigh of relief that his film could open in peace today, the birthday of the country's revered king and a national holiday.

When it opens, "Ong Bak 2" will have come a long way. Just a few months ago, it seemed destined to remain in the can after the sometimes sensational Thai press reported that Jaa had fled the set after going over budget and was hiding in a jungle temple practicing black magic. Yes, really.

In addition to his disappearance and alleged bizarre behavior over the summer — confirmed at the time by Somsak Techarat-anaprasert, CEO of producer Sahamongkol Film International — Jaa also told police he was being followed and reportedly asked for protection.

Then, in late July, he went on a Thai television talk show to set the record straight. Wiping tears from his eyes, Jaa said he hadn't disappeared but simply needed to meditate and that he was ready to finish the movie right away.

Sahamongkol executive vp Gilbert Lim said that Jaa's absence briefly had a negative effect on both the production and Sahamongkol, which manages his career. "It is a tall order to act, choreograph the action and direct. I am sure he was under a lot of pressure," Lim said.

Jaa vaulted to action-star status with the 2003 contemporary action thriller "Ong Bak," which appears unrelated to what is nominally a sequel. (In a 2006 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lim said they shared similar themes but declined further comment this week.)

Jaa later starred in the 2005 release "Tom Yum Goong" (The Protector). According to Sahamongkol, "Ong Bak" and "Tom Yum Goong" earned about $4 million and $6 million, respectively, at the Thai boxoffice. They pulled in another $20 million and $27 million worldwide, more than any Thai film before them.

Heading into Jaa's latest effort, Sahamongkol Film is predicting the same kind of success, if not even more.

"Just based on the sales internationally, this already is Jaa's most successful film," said Lim, who put the budget at $15 million, making it the most expensive Thai film ever made. "I think we will have a huge hit in our hands."

At least two major U.S. film companies said this week that they are making serious efforts to secure the rights to "Ong Bak 2" in the U.S., the last major market to lack a distributor.

Among the interested parties is the Weinstein Co., according to one source at the firm.

The Weinsteins, who distributed "Protector" in the U.S., bought all non-Asia territory rights to "Ong Bak 2" in 2006 for $10 million-$15 million. The deal was nullified a year later after production delays and "creative differences" about the film not being a chronological sequel. (partialdiff)