When I was a kid, I had absolutely zero Thai film stars or musicians to admire or imagine myself as. While I don’t really feel bad or upset about this, since I recognize that’s part of growing up as a minority immigrant in America, I do wonder how my self perception would’ve been different had I been able to have access to Thai films as a child.
I watch a lot of Thai movies with my kids, in part, to try to help build a healthy sense of ethnic identity for them, but really though, I do it for myself. I try to get my children used to seeing Thai people in media, so that they don’t develop a disconnect with their own father’s ethnicity and looks, as I did with my parents when I was growing up.
This post is dedicated to one of the only internationally known Thai film stars around right now: Tony Jaa.
Tony Jaa is a Thai martial arts superstar with increasing renown across the globe. Born as Panom Yeerum and known in Thailand as Jaa Panom, he has since taken the name Tatchakorn after he became a Buddhist monk.
He’s gained fame for both his extraordinary martial arts ability and his almost super human stunt work, where he’s known for not using wires or special effects. In his earlier days, he used primarily Thai martial arts in his films, but has since incorporated multiple styles from Chinese kung fu to Indonesian Silat.
He’s starred in 4 films so far: Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong (The Protector), Ong Bak 2, and Ong Bak 3. He’s had roles in older, low budget Thai films as well and a cameo in both Thai Bodyguard films.
He is of the the Kuy people, an ethnic group related to Khmers that resides mainly in northeastern Thailand and who are known to Thais as the elephant people because of their close relationship living with and raising elephants. His second staring role in the film, Tom Yum Goong, had to do specifically with his ethnic group and his quest to rescue two kidnapped elephants taken to Australia.
Physically, Tony Jaa is representative of a type that is very prevalent in northeastern Thailand. With a strong brow, very dark skin and round, wide set eyes, he has a look common to many Thais and Khmers in that region.
As a side note, an interesting discovery made along with the recent Denisovan study was that Cambodians have an unexpectedly high percentage of Neanderthal genes. I wonder what Neanderthal traits are present in Khmers and Thais?
Here’s a clip from the film Ong Bak 2 with Tony Jaa in an incredible display of martial arts mayhem: