Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Review: Chocolate

  • Chocolate, directed by Prachya Pinkaew
  • Screenplay by Nepalee and Chukiat Sakweerakul
  • Starring Yanin "Jeeja" Wismitanant, Ammara Siripong, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Taphon Phopwandee, Sirimongkol Iamthuam
  • Wide release in Thailand cinemas on February 6, 2008; reviewed at press preview on February 4, 2008
  • Rating: 4/5

The sweetness of Chocolate, the new martial arts drama by the Ong-Bak/Tom Yum Goong team of director Prachya Pinkaew and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai, is tasted in the first 30 minutes of character development. A slightly bitter, but still pleasing aftertaste comes in the last 90 minutes of non-stop, innovative and dangerous action, as new female martial arts star Yanin “Jeeja” Wismitanant single-handedly lays waste to dozens of men with just her feet, knees, shins and fists.

It's these first 30 minutes that give Chocolate its heart. And, in the script by a writer whose pen-name is Nepalee, and The Love of Siam's Chukiat Sakweerakul, perhaps the best-developed character is not the young autistic female protagonist played by Jeeja, but the character's Japanese father, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). He is introduced as a little boy, fascinated with imperfections.

So, as a yakuza boss, looking to expand his territory in Bangkok, Masashi is captivated when he sees Zin (Ammara Siripong), the girlfriend of his Thai rival, the enigmatically named Number 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong). Zin you see, is beautiful, though what Masashi notices is a scar above her left eye.

The two have a passionate affair that leads to Zin becoming pregnant, and Number 8 becoming so angry, he cuts off one of Zin's toes. To avoid more unpleasantries, Masashi is forced to return to Japan. Zin raises the child, a girl, alone.

The girl, named Zen, is not quite right in the head. Doctors say she has autism, a brain development disorder. But she is also very likely gifted with some type of extraordinary skill, such as famously portrayed in the Hollywood film, Rain Man. In that 1988 film, Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant character had uncanny talents, including the ability to accurately count such objects as spilled toothpicks or cards in a casino's blackjack shoe. But he was also socially withdrawn and uncoordinated. In Chocolate, Zen is superbly coordinated, and has developed a sixth sense in which she can catch or dodge objects being thrown at her. But despite having caught a fly in her mouth as a toddler (or maybe because of it) the sight of flies causes her to scream in paralyzing fear

As the girl grows up, living in a house next door to a Muay Thai academy, she proves to be a gifted mimic, and she copies the Thai boxing moves by kicking a wooden post on her front porch. After a day of kicking the post leaves young Zen's legs bruised, the column is wrapped in blankets.

Zen also watches martial arts videos, and like any good Thai girl, she watches the films of Tony Jaa, and learns to mimic his moves. All the while, she eats little colored M&M-type chocolate candies, bouncing them into her mouth off of her wrist. Jacked up on chocolate, she becomes a force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated by her first fight scene, in which she beats up a gang of bullies who interrupt the street performance she is giving, catching objects from bystanders while her friend, a street kid named Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee), announces to the crowd.

Zin, meanwhile, has become ill with cancer and needs money for medical treatment. The movie could end right here if Thailand had a socialized medical scheme that actually worked, but it doesn't. So, when Moom and Zen uncover an old notebook containing the names of people whom Zin loaned money to back in her gangster days, Zen switches into fighting mode.

From this point, the dialogue doesn't matter much, as Zen goes from place to place, demanding, "give me my mother's money!" It's like Tony Jaa's battle cry in Tom Yum Goong ("Where is my elephant!?") but Zen can be excused because she has a mental defect.

It's the action that matters, though. Zen first faces down a dozen or so men in an ice factory, a direct reference to Bruce Lee's first feature film, 1971's The Big Boss, which was filmed in Thailand. Jeeja even lets fly a few Bruce-like screams, with great effect. She then fights a bunch of guys in a warehouse, sliding under a table on her knees, and acrobatically dodging kicks and punches by snaking her body over, under and through a catwalk railing. Next is a meat-packing plant, which gives Jeeja a chance to dodge flying cleavers, and with the aid of Moom, overcome her fear of flies.

Against the wishes of his stony faced superiors in Japan, Masashi comes to the rescue, and he faces the vengeful Number 8 and his comically evil transgender sidekick (Sirimongkol Iamthuam) in a Japanese martial arts dojo in Bangkok's Little Tokyo. Masashi at first wastes a few swordsman by shooting them, Indiana Jones style. He later furiously wields a katana as he tries to kill Number 8, who despite being stabbed and shot, simply refuses to die. The amount of blood would make the Shaw Bros.' Chang Cheh proud.

In a scene that references the House of Blue Leaves segment of Kill Bill, Zen faces an endless stream of the crazy Number 8's men. The fight spills over to the side of the dojo's building, with Number 8's henchmen dramatically falling four stories to the pavement, bouncing off ledges and signs on the way down. At least one stuntman was actually hospitalized during all this, which is shown in a injury reel over the closing credits, just like a Jackie Chan film. Jeeja had her share of injuries, too, including a kick in her right eye that shut down production for a week.

Like Masashi's fascination with the imperfections of Zin and Zen, there will be critics who will find flaws in Chocolate. And yes, eating too much chocolate might make you sick, but this amount is just about right.

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(Cross-published at The Nation Weblogs)


  1. Esta peli promete pero quiero saber si llegara a España y si es asi, cuando, deve estar bien, pero necesitais mas publicidad para darla a conocer.Un saludo.

  2. 'Chocolate' deserves to be a bit better known outside Thailand. I'm glad your review is positive, even though I don't actually agree with your review on many points of detail (e.g. the [Thai] dialogue *does* matter; about Mahashi; Zen uses weapons a bit; at least one of No.8's thugs is a greater glutton for punishment than him - checkered scarf man).

    I did enjoy the several 'homages' to other classic MA movies, and I agree that the film has major flaws. Nevertheless I'm telling people to watch it, as it's a magnificent achievement. It has more and better plot than the Ong Baks and Tom Yum Goong put together, and the parts that aren't direct homages are very inventive.

    This film deserves to be watched even if only to salute the amazing, hardcore stunt-work, but there are also nice touches, like the small family dynamic, and even more, how Zen (sic) constantly turns her small size into an advantage in the fights.

    People who keep lazily calling Jeeja 'a female Tony Jaa' aren't doing this film or its' star justice.


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