Published on November 15, 2007
He's been directing dramas and comedies for 15 years but Prachya Pinkaew is probably best known as the man behind "Ong Bak", the 2003 muay thai movie that launched the international career of Thai action hero Phanom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum.
Prachya and Jaa travelled the world promoting their film then returned home to work on their next project. But while 2005's "Tom Yum Goong" did well at the box office - fans loving its bone-crunching, acrobatic action - the movie was panned for a weak plot and poor acting.
The director took the criticism on board and, for his third action project, which will be released next year, Prachya promises a film with greater substance, both in terms of the script and cast.
Unfortunately, the Bt150-million "Chocolate" won't feature superstar Jaa. He's currently working on "Ong Bak2", which he's also directing.
But Prachya has a promising new star of his own. Nicharee "Jeeja" Vismistananda has spent the last four years training in martial arts and some movie buffs are touting her as Thailand's very own action heroine.
The director discovered her four years ago when he was casting for Phanna Ritthikrai's movie "Kerd Ma Lui" ("Born to Fight"). Although he didn't have any particular role in mind for her at the time, he was sufficiently impressed by Nicharee's moves to send her to practise with Phanna's team.
"She's an experienced
taekwondo exponent and we've added to her knowledge of fighting skills. She was just right for this project," he says.
"Chocolate" tells the story of an autistic girl who learns how to fight both by absorbing the martial arts she sees on TV and from the muay thai boxing camp next to her home. When she discovers a list of debtors in her sick mother's diary, she decides to go collecting. Her quest leads her to confrontations with criminal gangs and also her father, a member of the Japanese mafia.
"I love the idea of an autistic child with a family relationship in what is essentially an action film," says the director.
But Prachya is quick to add that action films with female leads just don't have the same kind attraction as testosterone-heavy flicks.
"Women can't compete with males when it comes to stunts and action. Besides, the bar has been raised now that we have a big star like Jaa. That's why we chose to do something different rather than try and match up to Jaa's standard," he says.
Since the Shaw Brothers' golden era, only one or two action heroines have been recognised for their own prowess in martial arts. Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi might have won prizes for her roles in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "House of the Flying Daggers" but she doesn't do the stunts herself. The most recent genuine action heroine that most Thais will remember is Michelle Yeoh.
"Today's audiences are more sophisticated, so our challenge as filmmakers is to convince them that a little girl can fight men. An autistic child is a perfect choice."
Training with Phanna's stunt team has given the actress the right moves, but Prachya isn't convinced that these will be enough to turn Nicharee into an instant action heroine.
"The drama makes the film more powerful and the story is sensitive to the emotional side. Nicharee works well in both the dramatic and the action scenes. Jaa started doing action before acting, which made it tougher for him in the dramatically demanding scenes," he says.
Prachya clams up when asked about his current relationship with the action star and is equally reluctant to discuss details of their falling out.
However, he confirms that the movie "Daab Atamat", the third Thai martial arts project on which the two were due to work, is now cancelled and that after "Chocolate" he will be making another female action film.
"Writer Prapas Chonsalanont has completed the script for 'Daab Atamat' but we've cancelled the project," he explains.
And unlike his last two films, muay thai is not the selling point for "Chocolate".
"We are trying to avoid any stereotypes in our action films, This movie doesn't showcase Thainess. It's an action film with a universal story," he says.
So universal that he's brought in Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe to play the protagonist's father. Abe is well known to Thai fans from TV dramas and enjoyed his first experience of working with a Thai crew.
"I was pleasantly surprised by 'Ong Bak' when it was released in Japan because I anticipated being cheated by the special effects. I was amazed when the credits rolled at the end and I discovered he'd done all his own stunts," says the actor.
"I'm very impressed with the Thai crew. They're always smiling and laughing, no matter how many hours we work."
"Chocolate" is currently in post-production. It is expected to go on general release next year.