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  • 18
  • Action, Drama
  • 2008
  • 89 mins

Chocolate

Chocolate

Synopsis

In Prachya Pinkaew's third feature, an autistic girl goes on a Bruce Lee-inspired rampage to collect her mother's old debts

About

"Masashi loves things that contain imperfections."

As he utters these words in voice-over at the beginning of Chocolate, the yakuza Masashi (Abe) is referring to Zin (Siripong), a woman with a scar over her eye who also just happens to be lieutenant to vicious Thai crimelord Number 8 (Wachirabanjong), currently engaged in a deadly turf war with Masashi. Years later the words will come to refer to Zen (Vismitananda), the autistic daughter that Masashi never knew he had. But they could equally be taken to refer to Chocolate itself, a film of so many imperfections that Masashi might well qualify as its ideal viewer.

On the surface, Prachya Pinkaew's third feature is a vehicle for newly discovered female martial arts star JeeJa Yanin, much as his earlier features Ong-Bak (2003) and Warrior King (2005) showcased the hard-hitting talents of Muay Thai phenomenon Tony Jaa - and consequently the film contains all the jaw-dropping fight sequences a growing boy needs. Once, however, you have bitten through its crunchy casing, you will find a soft, cloying centre that is unlikely to satisfy those reared on more punishing fare.

With her lover Masashi sent back to Japan as part of an agreement with Number 8, Zin gives birth to Zen in Bangkok and goes into hiding from her psychotically possessive, toe-collecting former boss. Though rarely speaking, Zen is gifted with unusually swift reflexes and motoric skills that enable her to mimic precisely almost any gestures that she sees - including the exercises of the Muay Thai school next door, or all the routines of her favourite video stars, Bruce Lee and, heh heh, Tony Jaa. Yep, Chocolate is hardly shy about its influences.

With her cancer-riddled mother in hospital and unable to afford her bills, sweet-toothed Zen and her adopted 'brother' Mangmoom (Phopwandee) set about recovering a list of debts owed to Zin, little realising the trail of criminal dealings that they are uncovering will lead them into confrontation with Number 8 and his gangs of tranny thugs in a final, brutal settling of old scores.

Chocolate is something of a mixed assortment. The elbow-on-skull and knee-on-neck action sequences are as irresistibly appealing as anything Pinkaew has done. An early fight in an ice factory gleefully re-enacts a similar scene from Bruce Lee's first major feature The Big Boss (1971), while the climactic battle, weaving on and off the narrow ledges and neon signs of a high-rise building, is a classic in its own right.

All this, however, sits rather uncomfortably alongside the more saccharine storylines about cancer and disability - and the latter comes with a strange aftertaste once the film's initial pretence at taking disability seriously (signalled by a po-faced text dedication at the beginning) has quickly given way to something more like a freakshow, culminating in the questionable spectacle of Zen's bout with the disabled Thomas (Kowahagul). The film avoids discriminatory treatment of Zen and Thomas only in the sense that all the other characters are equally two-dimensional.

So don't watch Chocolate expecting the sensitivities of Her Name Is Sabine (2007) or even Rain Man (1988). Here Zen's autism is merely one other sensationalist element in an already overbaked plot, as well as being a useful cloaking device.

Were Zen not both female and handicapped, no doubt her self-appointed role as ultraviolent debt collector would cast her in a far less sympathetic light. As one of her victims puts it after Zen has destroyed his factory and put his entire workforce out of action: "It's only 5,000 - why do you have to do this?" Answer: for our entertainment.

One might also suspect that Zen's near-mute status and lack of an affective repertoire conveniently cover over Yanin's deficiencies as an actor. Still, no one who has seen this will question her talents as on-screen ass-kicker extraordinaire - and in the end, while that might not be quite enough to carry this film, it is certainly what counts most.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ammara Siripong, Taphon Phobwandee, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Hiroshi Abe, Kittitat Kowahagul, Sano Hirokazu, Thanyathon Seekhiaw, Dechawut Chuntakaro, Pirom Ruangkitjakan, JeeJa Yanin
  • Director: Prachya Pinkaew
  • Screen Writer: Nepalee Sakveerakul, Chookiat Sakveerakul
  • Producer: Prachya Pinkaew
  • Photographer: Decha Srimantra
  • Composer: Korrakot Sittivash, Rochan Madicar, Nimit Jitranon

In a nutshell

JeeJa Yanin is a sensational discovery but this mixed assortment of high kicks and even higher melodrama may be an imperfect vehicle for her.

by Anton Bitel

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