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Action's new star fulfils her passion for martial arts in 'CHOCOLATE' : On February 6th , 2008
"My momma always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get'."
This quote from Forest Gump applies perfectly to Yanin "Jeeja" Vismitanada. Jeeja says being offered the lead role in Prachya Pinkaew's latest action film Chocolate was more than she had ever hoped for. But looking closely at her sparkling eyes one can see the gentle strength and raw determination of someone who would succeed at anything she set her mind to.
In Chocolate, Jeeja's first film, she plays Zen, a teenage girl with phenomenal fighting skills hidden beneath a veil of autism. Jeeja proved that she is more than just a pretty face in the role - the tiny Japanese-looking girl did all her own stunts, apparently without fear.
In the film, Zen learns how to fight by absorbing the martial arts she sees on TV, and from a boxing camp close to her home, where she lives with her sick mother. On discovering a list of debtors in her mother's journal, Zen decides to go collecting, leading her to brawls with Mafia gangs and eventually her father, a member of the Yakuza.
In some ways, Jeeja is a lot like Zen with her hidden gift for martial arts. Jeeja's passion is taekwando, a sport she began learning at the age of 11 (she also says she grew up watching martial arts movies). At 13, she received her first dan black belt and became a coach. Six years later she received her third dan belt and met action maestro Panna Rittikrai, director of Kerd Ma Lui (Born to Fight).
"I was always a girl who couldn't stay still - I loved to do activities from practising ballet to playing Thai musical instruments. But I was never good at anything until I tried taekwando. Since the first day of practising, I felt a great sense of freedom and a real equity between men and women. Like a man, I could run, punch and kick all day long. Then I knew I was born for this," said 23-year-old Jeeja, now a third-year student at Kasem Bundit University.
Encouraged by her taekwando coach to audition for Panna's Kerd Ma Lui, Jeeja ended up drawing the attention of Prachya, director of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Kung, who was impressed with a video she submitted of her martial arts skills. Recognising Jeeja's potential, Prachya wrote Chocolate, a 150 million baht fightfest with gymnastics and martial arts fight scenes choreographed especially for the budding star. So instead of landing a role in Kerd Ma Lui, Jeeja ended up training for four hard years in mixed martial arts with a professional stunt team.
"The plot was drawn from my impression of Jeeja," said Prachya. "Firstly I thought I would make a movie with a female as the lead and that she must be masculine with a traditional Thai look. Jeeja, however, was a real surprise. Who knew this cute little girl could kick like a man! So I created Chocolate. Its name may sound sweet, just like Jeeja's face. But if you look closely into her eyes and see her moves, you will be surprised."
For Jeeja, the four years preparing for Chocolate were spent training in gymnastics, Muay Thai, weaponplay and acting. She trained for eight hours a day, seven days a week. The first two years were dedicated to gymnastics, learning all the basics from handstands, cartwheels and rolls, to backflips and handsprings, as well as Muay Thai, in which Jeeja learned everything from wai khru ram muay (paying respect to teachers) to all the Muay Thai fighting techniques. Every day involved hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups as well as punches, kicks, elbows and knees that lead to broken knuckles and Jeeja loosing six kilogrammes.
There were physical and emotional roadblocks along the way, said Jeeja. Many accidents occurred during the shoot. In one of the said Jeeja. Many accidents occurred during the shoot. In one of the film's most important and dramatic scenes where Jeeja fights three Muay Thai champions from Thailand, the Netherlands and Korea she was accidentally kicked in the left eye.
"It was not because of a lack of practice but a lack of sleep. While shooting I was too tired and fell asleep!" laughed the actress.
Jeeja wasn't laughing when her eye was left swollen shut, however.
"Shooting had to stop for a week and I was a bit scared that I might be blind forever," she said. "Admittedly, sometimes my body was not ready - especially when I had my period and the shoot had to be postponed. But ... I had to keep myself as physically and mentally fit as possible. I knew that doing too much was bad, but so was doing too little. So I had to do to the most I could."
The fight and action sequences were not easy. They required safety preparations and much practice to bring out detail that shows the excitement and beauty of martial arts cinema, said Jeeja.
"The preparation and my training made me confident in all the fight scenes, but the problem was that I have a phobia of heights. So fighting on a building 14 metres high gave me a hard time. I was really, really scared," she recalled, adding that it took two months to shoot that scene.
"Firstly I just walked along the edge of the four-storey building. When I got used to that, I started kicking, jumping and climbing down and up again."
Jeeja considered one other weakness to be that she was too sensitive to others during filming.
"Once I kicked a stuntman and he fell straight down the four-storey building. I was crying, I was afraid he was hurt. But then I realised that he was just doing his job and that I had to do mine. I told myself that I shouldn't cry or be scared, instead I should be more determined and do my best. So I took a deep breath and just did it."
Acting was also a challenge for Jeeja. Playing Zen, she had to learn to behave like an autistic person. She studied autism from conventional sources and spent three days at a centre for autistic people where she both observed the residents and spent time with them. During that time, Jeeja said she became one with the people at the centre and allowed them to become one with her.
"I never knew what autism was. I couldn't imagine how autistic people thought and behaved so it was very hard to get deep into and absorb myself in the character," she said.
"Being with autistic people, I realised that I could understand more about them [from their company] than from reading hundreds of stories about them. It was such a wonderful experience. I realised that people with autism are not different from other so-called 'normal' people. Though they have problems communicating, many of them display exceptionally gifts. They were so good at drawing and maths, and they even taught me to bake cookies! On the last day I showed them my butterfly kick and let them do it. They just stared at my moves then did exactly what I wanted them to do. I was so surprised! They were so determined and focused, it was amazing!"
As a new star of the action genre, Jeeja has inevitably been viewed as a female version of Tony Jaa, the reigning king of Thai action films. But Jeeja wants to make one thing clear: She doesn't want to replicate the legendary Jaa. Rather, she says she is simply wants to fulfil her passion for action and martial arts.
"I really love martial arts and fast stunts. And I'm so thankful that the director gave me room to train and to show my knowledge of martial arts in my own style," said Jeeja.
"But I wouldn't dare to try and be Jaa. He's one of my masters who I greatly respect. I am simply Jeeja, who loves to kick, punch, jump and spin!" she said with a broad smile and a laugh.
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