As we anxiously await the release of the most recent “Fast & Furious” flick, partially filmed on location in the south of Thailand, let’s reminisce about those films of yore that tried their best to depict the cultural enigma that is Bangkok on the big screen. For this article, I’m only covering films made by farang production companies for the Western market. So while it may seem like a crime to include Nick Cage’s version of “Bangkok Dangerous” while skipping over the original, at least you know why, and the reason for the title of this blog. It’s a partial prospective/perspective (partspective for short, copyright BKK7). Let’s get started…
The Deer Hunter
Famously filmed in part in Patpong, this gripping tale of Vietnam POWs’ post-war lives depicts the dangerous side of the 1970s era Red-Light as both catalyst and catharsis for Christopher Walken’s character, who never does shake off the demons from his past. The scenes (shot in the long-gone Mississippi Queen) are gritty, unflinching, and tinged with despair while at the same time colorful, titillating, and adventurous. Which is precisely what the Pong embodies to this day.
The Hangover Part 2
Skirting the debate about whether or not this movie is or should be offensive to Thais, let’s forget about the plot and even the characters for a second and just look at how it portrays Bangkok. Heat, crowds, and traffic? Check. Soft drink in a plastic bag? Check, although not as of 2020. Random elephant walking the streets? Ummmm, nice try. Power outages in older buildings? Definitely. Dangerous alleyways if you want to go looking for them? Of course. Tattoo parlor on Soi Cowboy? Not that I’ve ever seen. Boat taxis? Yep. Cheap medical treatment? For sure. Riding in a crowded songtaew? Hell yeah. Monkeys in the city? Nahhhh. I’ve seen tons of em out in the suburbs. But not in the heart of BK.
I think they did a pretty good job of capturing the culture and atmosphere of Bangkok, minus some of the higher and lower end locales. I only wish they’d managed to shoot some scenes on a clear day, since BKK’s skyline is so lovely when framed in blue.
Kickboxer, Kickboxer Vengeance, Kickboxer Retaliation
In 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme took us to Thailand for the action-packed Muay Thai movie that kicked off (no pun intended) a franchise. That franchise quickly veered away from Thailand—and JCVD—until recently when “Vengeance” and “Retaliation” brought it all back to the series’ Thai roots. The original made Thailand more than just a backdrop for the story. There’s a real feeling of love for the country that comes through in the filming of each location, from the temples in Bangkok and Ayutthaya to the boxing arenas to my favorite spot: Patpong.
“Vengeance” is dotted here and there with establishing shots of temples and the Chao Phraya, same as the other KB films. What little is shown of Bangkok consists mostly of back alleys and the BTS skytrain. David Bautista plays the villain in this one. JCVD plays himself as usual.
Most of “Retaliation” takes place inside what is supposed to be a Thai prison. Aside from the floating market and the train station, there’s not a lot of Bangkok in the film. But there’s plenty of other eye candy, eg the actor who played The Mountain on Game of Thrones doing kung fu, Mike Tyson doing kung fu, JCVD doing kung fu, Christopher Lambert sword fighting with JCVD, and hot Asian chicks in bikinis and glow-in-the-dark lipstick swinging swords.
Only God Forgives
I loved this beautiful, mysterious, disturbing film about an American boxer’s search for self in Bangkok. Most people who saw it couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Nicholas Winding Refn’s storytelling method is confounding on its face. Combine that with his attempt to weave a tale in a distinctly Thai style and it’s no wonder filmgoers missed the message. Plot points aside, it was a visual work of art with Thailand as the subject. They filmed all over the city and some rural areas, but the location I immediately recognized was a scene on the corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 4 near Nana Plaza.
The Nick Cage version of this movie was filmed in large part on Naradiwas Road between Surawong and Silom, which is a block from my apartment. Speaking of, you can see my building in several of the establishing shots. I didn’t care for the story very much, and felt no empathy for Cage’s character. But it was cool to see the neighborhood I live in and love in the background of the action. There’s also a great boat chase scene, some of which takes place on the Chao Phraya.
Dolf Lungren, Ron Pearlman, and Peter Weller star in a movie about an American detective getting revenge for his murdered wife by teaming up with a Bangkok cop (Tony Jaa) to shut down a sex trafficking ring. Practically the whole thing was filmed in BK, with a scene in Baccara as well as up and down the old Suk Soi 7. It’s a pretty good B movie action flick. Oh, and of course, sweeping shots of the Chao Phraya.
The Asian Connection
A gorgeous Thai girl falls for a farang who happens to be a thief, who gets blackmailed into robbing banks for a Thai gangster, who is somehow connected to a character played by Steven Seagal, who spends most of the movie either karate chopping randos and snogging his own Thai girl until the end when he kills the farang thief and lets his girlfriend go. Pretty convoluted story, but there are some great shots of Bangkok streets, plus the obligatory long-cuts of the Chao Phraya.
And that’s about all I could take in in one sitting. From the sublime (The Deer Hunter and Only God Forgives) to the hilarious (Hangover 2) to the utterly ridiculous (all the rest), Bangkok as a backdrop definitely increases the appeal of a film. Here’s to hoping more filmmakers decide to set their stories here, in the most exciting, most beautiful city on the planet Earth. Cheers.