Aug 1, 2010

Martial Arts Month: Raging Phoenix

DIR: Rashane Limtrakul
CAST: Yanin Vismistananda [Jija Yanin], Patrick Tang

A couple of years ago 24 year old Jija Yanin made an auspicious film debut in Chocolate, starring as a young autistic girl who learned her movies from watching the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jija’s own mentor Tony Jaa. It would have been easy to just allow Yanin to repeat herself, to make Chocolate over and over again, but instead Raging Phoenix finds her changing her martial arts style and stretching her acting muscles a little more.

The story, such as it is, has Yanin as Deu, a young rock drummer who seems to have very few people in her life. While she’s hungover a gang attempts to kidnap her, but she’s saved by a mysterious martial artist (Tang) who, along with the other members of his gang, then teaches her their form of fighting; a blend of drunken boxing, muay thai and moves based on hip hop dance moves. Once she’s trained up, the gang seek to extact revenge on a people trafficking ring.

Simplistic doesn’t even begin to describe the story and screenplay, but as with any martial arts movie, that’s not what this one is about. It’s about feet and hands and elbows and knees. Thee fights are the centre of the film and though the martial arts style remains largely the same the tenor of the fights ranges from the comedic (the first time we see the whole of Tang’s gang, in a fight scene in which they use Yanin as a sort of deadly rag doll) to the brutally bruising (the entire last twenty minutes, including an especially jaw dropping sequence across rope bridges on three levels). There’s also a great training sequence, very reminiscent of those in Drunken Master, only with the pretty, petite Yanin standing in for Jackie Chan.

Whatever your feelings about Raging Phoenix as a whole (and it is a rather slapdash affair in many ways) there is one thing in it the brilliance of which it would be churlish to deny, and that’s Jija Yanin. She’s a movie star through and through, possessed of screen searing charisma, which, along with her cute face and awesome athletic prowess, draws you both to her character and into the story. She’s not the world’s best actress, but while we’re not exactly talking Isabelle Huppert with Muay Thai skills, Yanin can act. There is one particular scene, on that bridge towards the end of the film, where she really seems to dig into deep emotional reserves and find something that really feels quite raw and real. It’s not what audiences will be coming to the film for, but it certainly makes it more involving, and suggests that Yanin can have a long career.

If the film is not quite as astonishing as Chocolate (and it’s not) that’s really for two reasons. First off, Raging Phoenix doesn’t have that incredible shock of the new, that sense of discovery that Chocolate did and perhaps more problematically the story this time out is so threadbare that the stakes feel rather lower. That said, this is still one of the best martial arts films of the last few years, and comfortably puts Jaa’s Warrior King and Ong Bak 2 in the shade. The pupil has outshined the master, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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