"Muay Thai Live"director Ekachai Uekrongtham teams up Tony Jaa on "Skin Trade" to bring and international flavour to Thai action movies
He's enjoyed considerable success with his stage works, among them the internationally acclaimed “Chang and Eng, the Musical” and the current hit “Muay ThaiLive: The Legend Lives” as well as his acclaimed 2003 drama film “Beautiful Boxer”, but until recently director Ekachai Uekrongtham had successfully avoided the genre he likes the least: the action movie.
His latest film “Skin Trade”, starring high-profile action superstars Phanom “Tony Jaa” Yeerum and Dolph Lundgren, has all the ingredients of an action thriller and Ekachai admits with a laugh that the big bangs initially made him uneasy.
“It’s a full-blown action film with lots of explosions,” says the director, adding that he is not enamoured of action movies and never really thought about working in Hollywood.
“But this film is also character-driven and that made it worthwhile taking on the project.”
“I see it as a movie about scarred people. Everybody in this film carries scars, either physical or emotional, and they all have a different way of dealing with their pain. I focused on this aspect and that allowed me to direct it as a thematic story,” he explains.
The Bt320 million-project is calling itself “a Thai film with an international approach”. It’s the brainchild of Lundgren, who had apparently wanted to make the film for more than a decade, and is produced by Jaa’s manager Michael Selby who worked with Hollywood producer Craig Baumgarten on “Never Back Down” and “Shattered Glass”.
“Skin Trade” tells the story of a detective Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) who mistakenly kills a son of Serbian gangster Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman). Dragovic wastes no time in taking his revenge and assassinates Cassidy’s wife and daughter. Cassidy then heads to Bangkok, where the Serbian is based, and teams up with Thai detective Tony Vitayakul (Jaa) to hunt down Dragovic and destroy his human trafficking network. The film also stars Michael Jai White from “Black Dynamite” as FBI agent Eddie Reed, Celina Jade from the series “Arrow” and actor-director Peter Weller.
Lundgren approached Ekachai after watching “Beautiful Boxer” and invited him to Los Angeles to work on the script. Shooting began last year with 95 per cent of the scenes shot in Thailand and the remainder in Vancouver, Canada. Crewmembers included production designer Ek Iemchuen, who worked with Jaa on “Ong Bak 2” and “Ong Bak” 3, and cinematographer Nattawut Kittikun, who teamed up with lead cameraman Ben Nott.
Ekachai says he thoroughly enjoyed working with Hollywood actors and very much appreciated their professionalism.
“They came with their own interpretations of their characters. A good director needs to know how to help different actors find their way into the character. My experience from theatre work is that at some point the actor decides he knows more about his character than the director and plays it differently. I don’t mind that but they have to justify it,” he says.
For the action scenes, Ekachai pushed his actors to arrive at the point where they needed to express themselves physically. “I like a film where there’s a transition from a dramatic moment to action. The film might start with dialogue but at some point the characters will talk through their actions,” he says.
He admits that he was nervous about working with Jaa at first having heard tales about the actor’s superstitious beliefs and his passion for meditation. “But when I met him for the first time, he came across as a normal and humble guy who was eager to get to work,” he says.
“What I like the most about him is his ability to concentrate. He can be very funny and make me laugh but he is able to switch into his character right after messing around. His concentration level is exceptionally high,” says the director.
The film was shot after Jaa finished shooting “Fast and Furious 7,” making it only his second English language film. Instead of just memorising his lines, he worked closely with Ekachai on the character’s background and even on his feelings during the action scenes.
“He discussed with me what was on his mind while his character was fighting. I told him to just feel it and I would capture it on camera. Jaa is not a technical actor but if he understands it, it’s real,” says Ekachai of the action superstar whose acting skills have long been questioned.
Ekachai has meanwhile kept busy with “Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives”, a stage show that recently marked one year at Asiatique the Riverside Bangkok. He is also the creative adviser to GMM Grammy and is helping the company’s new digital One Channel get off the ground.
He is also discreet, refusing to comment on the legal battle between Jaa and Sahamongkol Film, The actor is currently being sued by his former studio for leaving the unfinished movie “Ai Noom Gangnam” (“A Man Will Rise”) to work on “Skin Trade”.
“I’m on the creative side and that is not related to the conflict,” he says in a tone that brooks no further questioning.
Ekachai gained recognition as a theatre director in Singapore before moving back to Thailand. He still travels back and forth between the two nations. He directed the Singaporean film “The Pleasure Factory” starring Ananda Everingham, which was screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard category. His other films include the horror flick “The Coffin” starring Ananda and Hong Kong actress Karen Mok and the romantic comedy “The Wedding Game”, a Singaporean-Chinese romantic comedy.
“Skin Trade” opens in cinemas on Thursday. |n For more details, check www.Facebook.com/SkinTrade.TH.