Sunday, September 17, 2006

Studio 47 Sunday Muay Thai

Studio 47 is packed high up with people, nearly to the ceiling, just like on any Sunday. There's a single tiny door out of this hellish cube so that spectators must begin to file in over an hour before the first fight. Don't look at the maze of cables on the ceilings, feeding the burning spotlights--if this place caught fire, hundreds would never make it out. Along with the lights, the fevered crowd has cooked what little air hovers above our heads to a boil. Shorts are not allowed here. This is not some joint where kids come to break in their shins and noses while the latest crop of tourists swings Singha beers on their 1,500 baht ringside seats. This is the site of a mass followed weekly by an entire nation. TVs throughout the Kingdom are turned onto the feed coming from this very room and provided by just two cameramen and a Louma crane (47 stands for channels 4 and 7). On the ground, we're all squished against each other but no one seems to care. Eyes are on the bright white square in the center of the studio, where two 13-year-olds are currently pounding each other's faces in with their elbows and knees. For every blow, the entire crowd shivers and lets out a gigantic roar. Hypnotic music played by a few dry old men, the pervasive smell of camphor oil, two bodies dancing/fighting in synch with a rolling sea of Thais--Studio 47 packs quite a punch itself.

Khun Pong spots me clutching my Lowepro camera bag, covered in sweat, attempting to adjust to the noise, the lack of oxygen, and the heat. I'm not hard to miss. I'm the only white guy in the room, and that's not very rare in Bangkok for rooms that pack a thousand people. I just stand there, the wind knocked out of me, taking in the bloodlust, so thick it inebriates me. So this is what a crowd at boiling point feels like. Khun Pong starts to elbow his way to me, barely less viciously then the kids in the ring.

"Follow me. We wait for end of match here, then we go." He points to three photographers shooting from under the ropes with battered Canons. Once Khun Pong has pulled me to the steel barriers cutting the masses off from the ringside, every other guy is some kind of special cop, in blue uniform unlike the regular police. They're not exactly nervous--everyone got searched on their way in and isn't carrying so much as a mobile phone--but they're definitely keeping an eye on things. It wouldn't even take a fire in here to get a lot of bodies. A bit of panic and a stampede would easily do the trick, at which point their Python .357s would only make things worse.

Lost in the crowd are men clutching plywood boards to which are glued dozens of mobile phones, the only ones allowed. They are the bookies, screaming into the phones while taking bets from inside the room that are made through hand signals no less sophisticated than those seen on the stock market in the old pre-computer days. Nobody takes any notes though, and there's no blackboard. It looks like everybody keeps track of what's going on in their heads. People bet with each other directly at times, skipping the bookies, or just stand there waving there fingers around for someone to pick up their bet. One old man dressed for a Sunday at the racetrack has completely lost his voice. He lets out a hoarse squeal then just explains something with half a dozen signals that the bookies copy A-Ok. And not a baht note in sight. It's all based on trust, or the grim fact that not paying up your debts would be the last thing you did.

Betting on Thai Boxing is the only form of betting or gambling allowed in the Kingdom. It's not the only one that goes on (thousands of households went bankrupt over England's loss at the last worldcup) but it's the only one you can't even pretend to ban. Half the men here are not around for the simple joy of watching two guys pummel each other, they're here to make it big. Lives are at stake here, perhaps more so than for the boys putting their necks out under the spotlights.

Guys are not the only ones taking this seriously. Women bet too, if less, but their faces can bend into masks of rage (as there favorite boxer takes a beating) that make the men look stoic in comparison. And girls and boys roars just as well, in perfect unison, for every blow delivered. Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! The crowd carries the fight, the fighters carry the crowd.

The boxers (the fight is now two star fighters in the 120-pound range, probably in their early twenties), covered in camphor oil, doused in ice between each round, have skins that remind me of horses and dogs after a long run. Their veins are bulging, struggling to feed oxygen to their exerted muscles. Their jaws are slack, as the mouth tries to feed oxygen too, to the lungs this time. Every part of the machine is stretched to the limit. By the time I've made it to the photographer's pen, I can assuage just how hard the blows are. The smacks are loud, very loud, projecting clouds of droplets of sweat and oil into the air. When the boxers come crashing towards the photographers, we all duck for cover. These guys are very light, but they're throwing their bodies at each other with the weight of elephants.

Despite the nearly free-for-all aspect of Thai boxing and the savage violence of the blows, there is extreme grace and intelligence in it. The fighters seek each other out, trick each other, taunt each other, and when they move in, it is with exacting precision; it is the movement of an idea, of a strategy, not just of a body part. Boxing and fencing are really the same thing, only Thai boxing involves every single part of your body. Only head-butting is forbidden. Bruce Lee wrote that Thai Boxing missed only locks and dirty tricks to be the ultimate martial art. But if the crotch is off-limits, and hair pulling and eye-poking is impossible because of the gloves, it just makes the fight longer. Even projections are allowed but the fact they are not followed byimmobilization techniques again just make the fight more spectacular. When these are allowed, you get Ultimate Fighting, where burly men grapple at each other on the ground for what seems like forever. Bruce Lee may have been able to kick Thai boxer's asses, but that's not what it's about. There isn't a more fast-paced, consistently violent, punch and kick-packed martial art in the world. Muay Thai is a show. It comes with music, it comes with a ceremonial dance at the opening of each fight (ram muay) to call on the favors of the spirits, and it has a crowd that sings along. This is entertainment at its best; the kind that takes you out of your body and lets you commune with an entire crowd through two lone avatars dancing in the spotlight--the ultimate cathartic experience.

manager's last instructions

Ram muay (ceremonial dance opening the fight)

the blue corner as their boy takes a beating

prize fighters

who will kick first?

the fight is not going well for him


Bitter rivals a second ago chill out in the shade after a quick shower.

photo tech notes:
I shot a roll of medium format outside so look out for that in the coming days. This here was all shot with a Canon 350D, 18-55mm (crap) kit lens at 1600 ISO, 1/160s to 1/200s, f/5.6 (wide open on this lens) to f/8 (because the autofocus sucks). Pictures at these settings were way too dark and levels were raised in post-production, hence the grain and aweful colors. Of course, no RAW as even in JPG my 1GB compact flash filled up in one fight. I need more of those and a faster lens (f/stop and AF), and maybe a 30D as well. Flash is not allowed at Studio 47 as this is a TV studio.


Anonymous Mathieu said...

Too bad about the autofocus, dude.

You def-need a f/2.8, even a cheap fixed focal length

4:33 AM  

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