Amidst sensitive times, when Japan was first drawing up piece treaties with ancient Thailand, samurai warrior, Yamada, is charged with discovering who is behind a plot to assassinate the King of the land of Ayothaya. On realising the plot is driven by his own people, Yamada is betrayed and left for dead. Found by villages of an Ayothayan backwater, Yamada is nursed back to health and finds companionship and brotherhood in a camp dedicated to training The King’s future bodyguards. Combining his samurai skills and the ancient Thai art of Muay Boran, Yamada becomes a most formidable fighter and vows to become a bodyguard to The King and bring honour back to his clan by bringing down the plotters.
The release of Ong Bak way back in 2005 seemed to signify an exciting new wave of action/martial arts cinema from the untapped talent of Thailand. Subsequently, and unfortunately, the wave turned out to be just a blip, the ensuing releases being too kitsch for the mass market (Born to Fight) or overblown misfires (the Ong Bak sequels), with only one or two real stand-out amongst the lot of them (The Warrior King, Chocolate). So it’s with high hopes but little faith that many of us martial arts fans view Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya.
Based on real characters and stories from Thailand’s history, Yamada has a sound premise, a kind of reverse The Last Samurai, if you will, in which a Samurai warrior finds a new home with the welcoming people and traditions of the Kingdom of Ayothaya. The story is presented with little subtlety, which, if we’re honest, Thai cinema isn’t known for anyway, but it does play out with the kind of gusto that used to permeate Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s, and so from the start will find a soft spot in the hearts of anyone who got that statement, though it is constantly evident that you’re not watching a film that is particularly great.
It looks quite lovely, considering its comparative budget to your average Hollywood movie, its period settings, real or constructed, feeling textured and full of history, and those who have no awareness of what ancient Thai warriors used to look like, get ready for some truly excellent hair-dos and mustaches. Sadly, we are also subjected to some terrible CG blood letting. Every bit of blood splatter in the movie is quite recognisably done in post-production, so recognisably in fact that it becomes quite distracting to the point where you wish they’d just opted to do some old school falling to the ground.
These kind of post-production additions are symptomatic of all the major problems with the film, the fight sequences, for instance, are all very solid and a great example of the no nonsense, heavy hitting approach to Thai martial arts, but then the makers decided to tweak the choreography in editing and have sped-up and blurred at all the impact points, which becomes annoying almost immediately and detracts from the work of many fantastic Muay Thai practitioners that have been hired specifically for their skill. It really leaves me in a state of befuddlement that contemporary filmmakers have still yet to figure out that the secret to great martial arts action sequences is good choreography and the talent pulling it off, nothing else, nothing they can do in post will better that initial solid base, so just let the fighters do the fighting already and leave it at that.
Stepping off my soapbox, the final word is that Yamada is a fun martial arts flick in the traditions of the old school, but is slightly tarnished by filmmaking clevernesses that turn out not to be so clever.
C grade – for storytelling
B grade – for visuals
B- grade – for action
c- grade – for direction
Overall grade – C+
Yamada: Way of the Samurai is available on region 2 DVD and Blu-ray from January 30th 2012 from Cine Asia .
Extras include commentary by Asian film expert Bey Logan, Deleted scenes and Cine Asia exclusive Documentary ‘Masters of the Ring’.
Watch the trailer.