AKA: Broken Sword Hero
Director: Bin Bunluerit
Cast: Buakaw Banchamek, Sornsin Maneewan, Nantawut Boonrubsub, Vannapoom Songsuparp, Chutirada Junthit, Phutharit Prombandal, Jaran Ngamdee
Running Time: 120 min.
By Kyle Warner
I tend to approach a new Thai martial arts film with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Because while it’s unfair to generalize an entire film industry’s output, my experience with Thailand’s action cinema often seems to have similar highs and lows across multiple films. The fights are realistic and it’s always amazing that the stunt work didn’t kill anybody, but the films can tend to play as amateurish whenever the hero isn’t breaking bones due to poor writing, acting, and directing. So, having said that, Broken Sword Hero was pretty much exactly what I was expecting it to be.
Broken Sword Hero is a historical martial arts coming of age tale about a young man named Joi. As a child, Joi suffered relentless bullying at the hands of the governor’s son and his gang. Vowing not to live in fear of a beating, Joi self-teaches himself Muay Thai boxing. From there, we see him grow into a young man, fighting in the boxing pits for money while also evading the governor’s son who still holds a grudge (the relationship between Joi and the governor’s son is never fully explored beyond protagonist vs. antagonist. The governor’s kid is just a dick, I guess. He pops back into the story now and then to try to kill Joi because that’s what dicks do, but it’s never much more than that). Joi starts to make a name for himself as an undefeated boxer in the villages, until the day he faces off against a stranger who nearly takes his head off in a match. Joi loses his celebrity status in an instant. After a drunk homeless man convinces Joi that he has raw talent but lacks the basics, Joi leaves his hometown in search of martial arts masters to better hone his skills.
Joi takes on the name Thongdee at this point – Joi committed no crimes but he is still treated like a criminal because the governor’s son is a dick – and learns the basics of Muay Thai boxing from one master before learning speed and conditioning from the next master and then learning swordplay from a third master. During this time, Thongdee/Joi also learns about loyalty, humility, heroism, and friendship and becomes a better man because of the good people he surrounds himself with.
In addition to the governor’s son and the governor’s brother trying to kill Joi/Thongdee, there is an additional governor subplot in the story. It kind of pops up out of nowhere. And when this governor is first mentioned, I naturally thought he was related to the governor plot we’d already seen in the film. But nope, new governor. And this governor is apparently under threat from rebels whose objective we are never made to fully understand. This new governor plot just sort of enters the film and takes over. And then, just when you think it’s leading to something substantial with the governor’s army and large-scale battles… the movie ends.
I can’t believe Broken Sword Hero ends the way it does. So many threads are left unresolved, yes, but that’s not even my main gripe. It appears to be stepping into new territory as Thongdee’s life takes a dramatic change. And then it ends. Fade to black, roll credits. The flow of the final moments is bizarre upon reflection. It’s like we start Chapter 1 of Part 2 of Thongdee’s story and then boom, The End. If Broken Sword Hero is the origin story of Thongdee, that’s fine, but finish this story before starting another one.
Where the film is at its best is in the action and fights. Though director Bin Bunluerit shows an over-reliance on slow-motion to film his action, this does nonetheless allow us to see full contact being made between our fighters. Thongdee/Joi is played by real-life Muay Thai champion Buakaw Banchamek, who has featured in films before but never in a lead role. While the script doesn’t offer him much of a chance to show his dramatic chops, Buakaw Banchamek is likable and totally believable as the young hero of the film. I fully expect him to be called the next Tony Jaa once the movie starts getting around. Because, I mean, of course.
If swordplay is what you’re after, you’re going to find very little of it in Broken Sword Hero. What we get is decent, but Thongdee doesn’t pick up his first sword until we’re well past the half-way point of the film. And our first broken sword doesn’t come until the movie’s almost over. Despite the title, this is a Muay Thai boxing picture, not a swordplay film.
There is a childlike innocence to the movie. And I mean that in a good way. Mostly. Thongdee has a boy meets girl romance with an upper-class young lady. One of the film’s ‘laughs’ involves her stepping in horse crap. Then, in what may be the closest thing to a romantic gesture seen in the movie, Thongdee smiles and scrapes the crap off her shoe before putting it back on her foot. It’s stupid… but it’s sincere.
The action is exciting and thanks to the earnestness of the cast the film can be charming. But the story is frustrating. It lacks a strong narrative flow and/or purpose. I grew restless hopping from one martial arts master to another in search of a plot. Characters of apparent importance come and go as they please. And the movie’s ending is so flat that I actually got angry when the credits began to roll… But yes, there is some entertainment to be had if you’re in the mood for a few elbows to the cranium. Just don’t go in expecting something challenging or original. Broken Sword Hero is about as simple and straightforward as they come.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5.5/10