Fury and grace: Jija Yanin

Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda‘s fight scenes in the movie Chocolate (also titled “Fury” in some versions) are totally amazing! I love how fierce and determined she is and how focused when fighting. In Fury she pays homage to Bruce Lee many times and matches his grim, unstoppable rage. The fight choreography from Panna Rittikrai, who did the fights for the awesome Ong Bak movies, is damn near perfect and the camera doesn’t cut too quickly from one to another, so you get a feeling for what’s happening and can admire the fighters’ skill and toughness.

What I really like about these fights is the way that every element of a scene is used. Every part of the environment becomes a weapon or a helpful pathway. It’s like watching Jackie Chan with a ladder: what are all the possible things you could do with a ladder, on it, around it, between every part of it, in a fight or while evading another person? This is a great art form! And Jeeja does it perfectly. Here’s the warehouse fight, just one of many memorable setups. No subtitles but don’t worry, just keep in mind, Yanin’s character “Zen” is an autistic teenage girl who need to get the money for her mom’s chemo, from some gangsters that her mom used to work for long ago. The boy is her adopted brother.

In the fight scenes I would like to point especially to:

* the warehouse fight’s slides between boxes, and the amazing use of the square glass coffee table; she slides under it on her knees while in a back bend, then back-breakingly slams the bad guy onto it. The sequence with the lockers, the way Zen leaped upwards onto a ledge and did the splits onto it, the use of the wooden chair, and the somersault down a falling cabinet were all amazing! If you can watch this without pausing and watching bits of it again, I’m surprised at you!

* the dodges in the beginning of the first big fight in Fury, where Zen is being attacked by some thuggish teenage boys and by a few graceful motions creates situations where they punch and kick each other nearly unconscious. And she does it all while wearing a sort of Holly Hobbie patchwork skirt, with a rocking chair and a rag doll. Here is a clip of the fight:

* The meat market fight, where the landscape was bloody guys with huge meat cleavers. Here the landscape was partly one of the horribleness of the carcasses and the flies – and Zen’s fight reflects that.

* The final fight on the ledges and shop signs was classic and made me think in a visceral way of 2-D video games, bouncing up and down ledges throwing things (and people) down. It’s the best fight, no, the best scene, on the edge of a building I’ve ever watched! The bit where she grabs the gangster’s leg and swings out across empty space on his leg, to kick the other guy in the head. And all the work on the railings. Let us soberly consider for a moment the actual injuries that surely resulted when they filmed this fight. Ow. Scary. I really hope the actors are all okay and also that they all make tons of money.

* The scene in the dojo, I noted her fight with the boy with either Tourette’s or spasticity or both. I did think about the idea of one disabled person fighting another and if that was disrespectful (while the movie as a whole was quite respectful of Zen as a person with autism) and sometimes it did seem so to me, and then I look at it again and think that I liked it… Because the guy fighting was so good and it seemed inherently cool to have him be powerful and a fighter whose disability worked to his advantage, incorporated into his artistic style and adding to his ability as a warrior. Just writing that sentence was kind of a rare experience.

* However I can’t really say the same about all the transwomen and gay guys being bad guys and dying horribly. There wasn’t anything much cool about that. So, warning and you might want to just fast forward when the women are all dressed up and go to where the Japanese guy’s agent is waiting to ambush them. I closed my eyes, then opened them, and then totally wished I hadn’t.

* The atmospheres all being a bit different – the lighting and settings and colorings of all the sets in the big fights; warehouse, ice house, butcher shop, the clean feel of the dojo, and then the gritty urban feeling of the night fight on the ledges with the high speed train going by.

* The way that everyone else had swords in the dojo fight, and she defeated them with the discarded sheaths.

* The fight with the toughest gangsters, especially when they go underneath a sort of crawlspace under a lattice of metal pipes, and fight intensely while squatting or almost lying down. I’ve seen one other great fight like this but couldn’t remember who it was or what movie. Claustrophobics and anyone who has a terrible fear of pipes, beware.

* I wouldn’t really compare her to Tony Jaa. They have the same choreographer and director and Yanin sometimes uses a Muay Thai move but she seems to fight mostly with taekwondo.

A warning, I had to fast forward through some of the beginning bits of the movie for some torture-heavy scenes (with her mom in her gangster days) and some heavy sentimentality, which, I got the idea right away, no need to lay it on so thick. Once you’re about 20 minutes in, after that first fight scene, it’s all good.

Yanin’s next movie is called Raging Phoenix. It looks like it might have some great fight scenes that mix her taekwondo with break dancing. That can’t be bad! But I worry that the movie doesn’t give her the real starring spot and she has definitely proved in Fury (or Chocolate, whatever) that she can carry a leading role, and she shines as an amazing fighter who can do 6 or 7 major sustained combat sequences without ever becoming dull. I hope we get to see more movies that show her as inherently tough, angry, not all sexed-up or femmy or stuck in a big romance, not starting out weak and then learning through abuse to be strong — just an action movie star given the roles to be a real fighter. Fierce and strong! No compromise! We want heroes! Not sexbots!

While I’m telling you about my love of violent fight scenes and obviously really dangerous stunts, I feel ambivalent about them and a bit ashamed. These movies are made under risky conditions for the actors, fighters, and stunt people. I love an actor who does their own fights and stunts and admire them, but what does it say that they do that for our consumption? It’s not pretty. And, these films are coming from outside the U.S. precisely because of a lowered disregard for safety or looser regulations. I think of the moody and beautiful and disturbing film All About Ah-Kahm about the life of a stuntwoman in Hong Kong movies — its scenes both of Michelle Yeoh as Ah-Kam, sitting in her apartment eating a cup of ramen alone, and of Yeoh in the outtakes, actually being carried off on a stretcher when she almost broke her neck from a stunt.

4 thoughts on “Fury and grace: Jija Yanin

  1. Bene

    Mr Bene had pointed me to this film when it was just released in Thailand (we had both liked Ong Bak a lot)…and I think we both promptly forgot to try to find it in the UK or US. I’ll have to track it down, now, definitely.

    1. Liz Henry

      It’s worth tracking down!

      I keep thinking of Ong Bak. That movie was sheer awesome and yet clearly those people are actually driving motorcycles through giant walls of flame and crashing into things for real. Etc. Now, we also pay for and drool over & idolize giant spectacles like football that are injurious to the players. But you see how I get uncomfortable cheering and going “Yay, now women can be ground up by the capitalist spectacle even more equally with men! Hurrah!” I want to cheer for one facet and not another.

  2. @thorfi

    I saw this film at MIFF this year… I’m a trained martial artist, and watching the fight scenes, I was pretty certain they weren’t fake, and there were at least a few scenes where I was pretty sure I was watching someone be injured, and the “outtakes” at the end showed that I was right. :-/

    Whilst the scenes were highly choreographed, the actors doing fighting are serious kick-boxing trained martial artists, and they aren’t holding back.

    I was… quite impressed and horrified at the same time. Pretty similar reaction, I think.

  3. Terri

    I’ll have to find a copy of this and grab some friends (or at least my sister) and some popcorn. Sounds fantastic, and I so rarely get recommendations for good martial arts movies. Thanks for sharing!

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