In 2003 and 2005, Tony Jaa (Panom Yeerum), Thai action film star, was the number one actor of martial arts films in Thailand with hits such as Ong Bak and Tom Yam Goong. With the same director Prachya Pinkaew and the stunt choreographer Panna Rithikrai, Tony Jaa developed the Thai martial arts genre to a new, heightened level.
Now, without Tony Jaa, the same team guardedly made a film with a new female actress, Yanin Vismitananda, known as Jeeja. (Jeeja is a Phillipines-tagalog word that means “Violin”).
Jeeja's background includes ballet when she was young and later taekwondo and other martial arts, all because of serious health problems as a child and the desire to strengthen her body and her spirit. For this film, she also learned gymnastics, Muay Thai martial arts and trained very hard like man in order to accomplish difficult and complex stunts.
Today. Jeeja is 23 years old. It took four years to produce this movie. The first two years she trained in Muay Thai and gymnastics as well as film acting and research about autistic children. The next two years were dedicated to production and more advanced stunt training.
In this film, Jeeja performes in the role of “Zen”, an autistic girl with talents in martial arts and ironically the reason why this film is called “Chocolate” is because Zen does like to eat a lot of chocolates. In the story, Zen lives with her beloved mother who is sick with cancer and increasingly impoverished because of costly medical expenses. Zen discovers that many people are indebted to her mother. She will do everything she can in order to extend the life of her mother including fighting with many opponents — not only dangerous martial artists but also corrupt politicians. In addition. as you can imagine, Zen has to fight with hundreds of bad men. Some of them are Thai boxers, some are women boxers from Korea and Europe. There are many risky and interesting scenes including a thrilling chase scene in Bangkok’s rambling BTS sky train.
Prachya, the man behind the hit films "Ong Bak" and "Tom Yum Goong" that sent Panom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum to international stardom, has had his eye on Jeeja for the last five years, having discovered her while casting for Panna Ritthikrai's film "Kerd Ma Lui" ("Born to Fight").
"We were impressed by her potential but at the time we didn't have a project suitable for her. We decided to hone her action skills by letting her train with the stunt team," says Prachya.
At that time, Jeeja was a freshman at Hua Chiew Chalermprakiet University. She decided to drop out of school when it became too difficult to balance her study time with the training.
"The progress in my training improved significantly when I stopped studying," she says. But as soon as she'd finished filming, Jeeja returned to her studies, this time enrolling at Kasem Bundit University's communication-arts faculty where she's working towards her film major.
She admits she found the four years of training and filming tough going at times and occasionally asked for time off.
"It got boring sometimes and I needed to get away. But every time I had a break, I'd worry about missing the training and always returned to the gym earlier than I had planned," she says.
Jeeja also worked hard on her acting, determined to be convincing in her role as an autistic girl who learns how to fight by absorbing the martial arts she sees on TV.
She spent two days at a special school for autistic children then returned to the set, trying hard to blend an autistic personality with the action moves, which she admits was far from easy.
Convincing character portrayal seems to be a classic problem for action heroes, and after being criticised in his last two movies for weak plots and poor acting, Prachya was not about to let history repeat itself.
"When I went into the action sequences, I forgot all about acting. He taught me to memorise the autistic feeling inside my head before the action moves. It was a helpful technique," says Jeeja, whose favourite hero is Jet Li.
But can Jeeja bring the action heroine genre back into the spotlight, thrilling audiences with her moves and acting in the same way as leading ladies Jarunee Suksawat and ML Sureewan Suriyong did in the Thai swashbuckling adventures of the late '70s? We'll have to wait and see.
Jeeja hopes that audiences will enjoy the film but waves off suggestions that she's a female version of Tony Jaa, a superstar in the making.
"I believe in living in the present, and feel really strange when my college friends ask me for an autograph or to pose for photos. I'm just an ordinary girl who's been given an extraordinary chance, and I've done my best. Whether audiences like this film or not is up to them. Whatever happens, I'm not doing to give up and will try do better in the next project."
In February 2008, the atmosphere in Thailand is warmer and the film “Chocolate” was heavily promoted to the press. It was interesting to see the favorable audience responses as Jeeja managed to fight like a man, a telling combination of Bruce Lee, Jacky Chan and Tony Jaa styles in one film featuring a woman. .
In my opinion, in the future Jeeja can prove herself to become an action "star" with her own style. I think the true meaning of chocolate is not only the sweetness and bitterness tastes of chocolate, but also the happiness and sadness of life.