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Why director Prachya Pinkaew doesn't expect the ongoing spat between star and studio boss to affect the box office takings of "Tom Yum Goong 2"

IT WAS PLANNED as a project of reconciliation, a B500 million sequel to ""Tom Yum Goong" that by bringing together high-kicking action star Thatchakorn "Jaa" Yeerum, his mentor Panna Ritthikrai and director Prachya Pinkaew, would show the world that the three had successfully mended the cracks in their relationship.

And indeed "Tom Yum Goong 2 3D" was very nearly a successful sealant, except that once the movie was in the bag, its star fell out with Sahamongkol Films' boss Somsak Techaratanaprasert over contract matters.

With both sides having their lawyers handle the conflict, it didn't come as much of a surprise that neither Jaa nor Somsak turned out for last week's press conference.

And so the press addressed their questions as to how the dispute would affect the film to Panna and Prachya.

The latter seemed surprised at the concern, saying that he couldn't see why a behind-the-scenes conflict would influence movie fans.

"I still went to see Jackie Chan's films after the scandal about him broke and it didn't stop my enjoyment of his movies. The movie is entertainment and for filmgoers, that should put it beyond any conflict," he says.

However, Prachya is keeping his fingers crossed that the action superstar will turn up for the movie premiere next month, though he admits that's still up in the air, as Jaa is preparing to head to Hollywood to shoot "Fast and Furious 7".

"I obviously hope he will come if for no other reason than he has put so much work into the project. He's the protagonist so he will earn a great deal of credit from the movie," the director says.

A sequel that picks up more or less where the first movie left off, "TYG2" centres on Kham (Jaa) who is furious when his elephant Khon is abducted for the second time. Kham, though, is suspected of being involved in the murder of elephant camp owner Sia Suchart so he's forced to search for Khon while staying under the radar of the police. Sia Suchart's twin nieces (Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda and Teerada Kittisiriprasert) are out to avenge their uncle and Kham finds himself fighting them as well as talented killers Twenty (Ratha Pho-ngam) and Number 2 (Marrese Crump).

Phetthai "Mum Jokmok" Wong-|khamlao) also reprises his Sgt Mark role and the film sees him assigned by Interpol to travel to Thailand to crack open a terrorist scheme.

The pachyderm almost didn't make it into the movie as cast and crew, all painfully aware of how the catchphrase "Where is my elephant?" became a joke, attempted to avoid repeating the plot. Screenwriter Ekasit Thairaat whose previous works include Chookiat Sakveerakul's critically acclaimed thriller "13 Game Sayong", disagreed and Khon's bacon was saved.

"There's an element of animal protection in 'Tom Yum Goong', which is borne out by "The Protector" title that was selected for its North American release. Filmgoers liked the idea of an elephant protector and so it became the story," says Prachya.

The director says he is quite satisfied with the script and that his biggest challenges came with choreographing the fight scenes.

He cast American hip-hop artist RZA, martial arts actor Marrese Crump, who worked as action coordinator on "GI Joe" and spiced up the macho action with female fighters Jeeja, new action heroine Teerada and Ratha, who is better known for her sexy roles in movies like "Jan Dara".

While Prachya admits that viewers probably won't get the same kind of goose bumps from the fighting scenes as in "Ong Bak" or "TYG", there is still plenty to keep them in their seats. Creating thrilling action scenes, he says, is difficult.

"Martial arts choreography requires a motive and viewers need to feel its toughness and strength. So obviously, the more realistic we are the better. But being realistic is also more dangerous. We were fortunate this time that the team and the actors stayed safe throughout the shoot," says Prachya.

The director is full of praise for Jaa's performance, saying that his acting has improved, his work in the fighting scenes is exhilarating and he helped to keep the entire project running smoothly. And while he isn't expecting audience numbers to drop because of the row between his star and the studio, he admits that the setback is generally bad for Thai action films.

"We had such a bright future when we released 'Ong Bak' and 'TYG'. That good feeling came back when we were making 'TYG2' but now the problem is pulling us back again. It's a shame as we have potential but we can do nothing as the problem revolves around Jaa. So it's almost inevitable that a country like Indonesia will win the battle for action film supremacy," Prachya says.

And indeed Indonesian action flicks have come under the spotlight in recent years with hits like "The Raid Redemption" and martial arts actor Joe Taslim landing a role in "Fast and Furious 6".

And while 2009's "Marantau" was very much influenced by "Ong Bak", Indonesia's subsequent releases, including "The Raid Redemption", have proved there are able to develop action flicks in their own way, Prachya points out.

HIGH KICKS

- "Tom Yum Goong 2 3D" goes on general release on October 23.


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