Since Tony Jaa burst onto the martial arts scene, Malaysia has become a fascinating growing film industry. A new Thai Kickboxing film is making its way around the festival circuit. Bunohan plays at Fantastic Fest on Sunday, and I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I interviewed writer/director Dain Said at a Canadian Thai restaurant.
CraveOnline: What would surprise American audiences about Thai kickboxing as a martial art?
Dain Said: Unfortunately, some of what I shot didn’t go in and that is an aspect I really wanted to show, which was there is a grace and a beauty. It’s not about machismo. It’s actually a dance. I grew up in the villages. Even though I traveled and went abroad and lived abroad, when I went back just for the film, I actually went back to the communities because it’s a rite of passage for most boys in a lot of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia, the border, which is where the setting for Bunohan is. When you look at it, from seven years old right up until people are 40, they’re still involved in Muay Thai kickboxing in one form or another. The thing about Muay Thai is it is a very graceful and beautiful dance. I’ll tell you what I mean. The fighters physically don’t put on bulk. It’s lean. Two, whenever there was a fight, there was always cockfighting to warm up the fight by the side. The stance of a lot of boxer isn’t [tight], it’s [wide elbows.] I thought it was like the roosters. Of course each individual fighter will develop a different style but in general, I always see them like this. They tend to use their legs a lot more than their hands, just like roosters actually jump and use their claws. Thirdly, there’s always a form of spiritualism around it in the sense that there’s a lot of rituals surrounding the fight. That ritual is the peace, the spirits. So there are all these layers surrounding the fight, although I’m not getting fixated on that.
Is this the same Muay Thai that Tony Jaa does?
Yes, absolutely, except in my film I didn’t want that kind of Hong Kong-esque wirey high flying hyper real fights. There’s nothing wrong with that but for me I wanted something quite real. If you compare it to any other martial art, to me, the thing about Muay Thai is it’s essentially very disciplined street fighting because you’re allowed to use everything. It’s very disciplined. It’s a lived reality. If you see all the others, it’s very formalistic. The form is very much on a higher or different level with Thai kickboxing. Although it is very effective, and that’s what I like about it.
Why didn’t the dance aspects make it into the movie?
The dance aspect of it didn’t make it into the film, but for me it’s mingled with the spirituality because essentially, there was not enough time for me. It would’ve been a longer film. By the time we cut it, it may have detracted from the main storyline so we wanted to keep it as tight as we could. Also budget was a consideration, so I cannot go into six reels.
How did you find the lead actor, Zahiril Adzim?
I think he was good. He needed a lot of training. The other actors that I used had a different kind of background, but he comes from the city. The others’ origins were far more from the rural areas, so for them the reality of the rural was far more prevalent than [Adzim.] [Adzim] was very, very good because we put him through kickboxing training. They mingled with kickboxers. Even for the shoot, I even used as extras kickboxers from all the clubs, just to give the feel that the actors were working in that milieu. I felt that that worked because I wanted it real.
Did Adzim audition for you?
Yes. When I wrote it, in a sense I had in mind already which actors I wanted, simply because he works in theater as well. He’s very, very intense when he works in theater so in a way, I knew that the intensity could be translated into film but I needed to pull it back a bit. I thought he did a good job. We gave him the training, he went on a diet. Before production was about three and a half months where he did the whole training.
What is the Malaysian film industry like these days?
The Malaysian film industry is actually very, very healthy at the moment. In the beginning, even six or seven years ago there was a definite stagnation where they would do very pale and really bad Hollywood copies. It’s developed since then because of a group of young people, primarily from the Chinese community who came out and basically went independent. Very small scale, low budget with a very strong vision of their own voice. That in a way created a response to the main industry and don’t forget, the technology and everything else has improved so more and more young people are coming in. There’s an incremental growth per year of the number of films that come out of Malaysia. It’s quite good.
Will it get to a point where people see a Malaysian film and can tell it’s distinct from a Hong Kong film or a Korean film?
For that I’m not too sure. I think we’re still quite young to be able to come to that stage. One can only hope that it can get better and it becomes much stronger in its vision and sense of identity and who it is. Therefore hopefully the voice comes out of that community.
Do you practice Muay Thai?
I don’t. I wish I did because it’s beautiful.
What do you hope audiences learn about Malaysian culture through ‘Bunohan?’
For me, I hope it exposes [the culture] because the film isn’t just about the fight. Why I wanted it so real, I wasn’t interested in the acrobatics of the fight. I was interested in the spirit of the fight. Given the context of that, what I was hoping also was that there are other aspect and dimensions of the stories that I hope will come through. I don’t want to give it away by telling you what it is, but if you see it, the idea of the folklore and local culture. At the end of the day, America has folklores like western. So do the original Indian culture. Those things are slowly going and we’re losing that. I hope that in a sense audiences can feel there’s a sense of loss that doesn’t have to happen. For me that’s very, very important.