I went for my run this morning to loosen up my muscles after last night’s fight and as I was rounding the last bend before getting to the gym I suddenly got the chant from Kickboxer stuck in my head, “Nak Su Kaw!” In that moment it dawned on me, as if through revelation, that I know those words to be Thai. Nak is used for students and fighters as one who does something; Su is to fight or war, so naksu a warrior; and kaw is white, like Buakaw. So, yeah, “white warrior.”
I haven’t seen Kickboxer since I was a kid and even though I watched it many times with all my brothers, I was probably only seven the last time I watched it. So I decided to watch the Naksukaw scene on YouTube and was astonished to see that the movie is, in fact, supposed to be about Muay Thai and in Thailand. What the hell? How did I miss that? (My brothers quote movies from our childhood as long-standing inside jokes that bind us to each other, our friends and our generation. As such, a lot of movies and media from my childhood are in snippets – I can quote Commando all day but couldn’t really tell you the plot. As the youngest, I also have far reaching references that are somewhat before my time.)
So I’m kinda freaking out because I was exposed to Muay Thai much earlier in my life than I had assumed, thinking that Ong Bak was the first time I’d ever seen or heard of Muay Thai. What would it mean if I’d spent hours of my early childhood watching Muay Thai without realizing it? I had to watch the whole movie tonight on YouTube to get some answers.
As I watched the opening of the movie I was surprised by how little I remembered of any of it. I recalled parts of it, like when Van Damme’s character sees the villain kicking the post in his dressing room and later kicking the palm tree. I remembered valuable lines, like “Ready to protect?” and of course the horrendous dancing sequence in the bar (you’re welcome; can’t unsee that!), which happily has scarred my husband and explained my inexplicable revulsion to proudly-flexible men. But aside from some real Muay Thai fighters at the start of the movie and a few nods here and there, there really isn’t much Muay Thai in this movie. Ong Bak can stay as my first real exposure.
But now that I’m living in Thailand and a Muay Thai fighter, it was interesting to watch the movie with my new, more-sentient-than-a-five-year-old brain. I think the scene that best expresses my first issue with the movie is when the older brother responds to the challenge of fighting in Thailand because they are the best in the world, “book me a ticket to Taiwan.” When he’s corrected that it should be Bangkok he says something like, “Thailand, Hong Kong, Taipei, what’s the difference?” That’s kind of how the movie writers took their licenses with Thai culture, geography and Muay Thai.
There’s real Muay Thai when they first get to Bangkok and when Van Damsel is looking for a camp that will take him after his brother is paralyzed. After that, not so much as a gesture – the “traditional” training clothes Van Damme is given look like maybe they were inspired by masseuse pants, but are more like Chinese peasant clothes in the background of Street Fighter video game fights and the loin cloths they wear in the final scene are not only not Thai, but are also not right on a number of taste levels. There aren’t even Thai actors in the main roles… or characters with Thai names for that matter.
The instructor who finally takes him on as a student teaches him Tai Chi and Van Damme’s training sequences are mostly TaeKwonDo and Karate mash ups from what I can tell. The province where he’s trained looks like it’s a mash up of Korat and Chiang Mai, but it’s supposedly right outside of Bangkok (or at least close enough that the evil promoter from the main Bangkok stadium is coincidentally having drinks in the bar and the evil Tong Po is keeping the villagers afraid and destitute with his thugs who come and go like they haven’t spent all day on a train or hours in a car).
In short, I don’t remember Muay Thai in Kickboxer because it’s talked about but not present. It’s Kevin Costner in The Big Chill. But it was a trip for me to realize while running in Thailand to my Muay Thai gym that the movie I’d watched as a kid might – MIGHT – have had some Muay Thai in it, or even have been set in Thailand, because I suddenly recalled a quote from it that now has meaning in its individual words.
It would be walking around in India and remember the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scene where the sacrificial man’s heart is ripped from his chest, still beating: “Kali ma!”