With the release of Ong Bak 3, the “final(?) chapter in the Thai martial arts trilogy, one of the most successful Asian film franchises in recent history comes to a conclusion. In a movie industry dominated by Hong Kong studios, “Ong Bak” not only held its own, but opened the door for the recent influx of Thai martial arts films and a new breed of high-flying action stars. One in particular stands out, Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistanada, often heralded as “the female Tony Jaa.” High praise or at least an equivocated compliment in a male-dominated industry.
Her name may not roll off the western tongue the way “Tony Jaa” does but the work of this young Thai actress and Muay Thai specialist, star of “Raging Phoenix” and “Chocolate,” is certainly on par with Jaa’s non-stop bone-breaking and elephant-acrobatics.
Under the tutelage of Ong Bak director and fight choreographer, Panna Rittikrai, it’s not surprising that Jeeja’s work in “Chocolate” leaves viewers awe-struck. In the film she plays an autistic girl named Zen, who gifted with lightning quick reflexes, teaches herself how to fight by mimicking Bruce Lee (and Tony Jaa) films and observing the training sessions at a neighboring kickboxing school. Zen’s new skills soon prove handy when she gets mixed up in a Yakuza war in an attempt to save her fatally ill mother. The logline for the American release of the film really says it all – “A special-needs girl with a special need – to kick some ass!” And the diminutive actress does indeed, catching plenty of air without the use of wires and contorting her small frame around endless obstacles and opponents.
And Jeeja’s second film, “Raging Phoenix” was a worthy follow-up to her incredible debut. While her character in “Chocolate” relied on sharp reflexes to take down baddies, in “Phoenix” it’s the bottle that fuels Jeeja’s ass-kicking, as she and a team of vigilantes get wasted to waste a gang of kidnappers.
Both films, available on DVD and Blu-ray from Magnolia, are great entry points for anyone looking to get into the increasingly popular Thai martial arts genre and worthy alternatives to the Ong Bak series.
Since the release of “Raging Phoenix” back in the summer of ’09, there’s been no news stateside of Jeeja’s next project. But I’m hopeful we’ll see more of “the female Tony Jaa,” perhaps next time starring along side him.