Chocolate: Film Review

First-time actress JeeJa Yanin underwent four years of self-induced torture to make Chocolate, Thai director Prachya Pinkaew's latest martial arts film. After following the director's instruction to engage in vigorous acrobatic and fight training for two of those years, she then spent the following two piecing it all together into a full-blown performance as this little ball of fire with vengeance in her eyes. It's all an effort to construct another installment in the Ong-Bak director's catalogue of athletics-based showcases, ones that usually work out to be more of a resume for the lead actor than a coherent picture. I'll be one of the first to acknowledge that I didn't dig either Ong-Bak or The Protector all that much, just because of their hollowness and their lack of a coherent story.

That fact makes it all the more pleasing that I absolutely loved Chocolate, suspended disbelief and all.

Maybe it's because this far-fetched premise is fleshed out much more than Prachya Pinkaew's previous flicks. Chocolate follows an autistic girl named Zen (Yanin) -- one of the rare types that maintain relatively high brain function -- who has lightning quick reflexes and photographic memory. Learning from television and observing the Thai kickboxing school next door to her home, she quickly builds her own fighting style based on what she's seen. All the while, Zen's mother, a former girlfriend to a Japanese Yakuza boss, has fallen ill and doesn't have the money to cover her treatments or medication. To pay her medical bills, Zen and her semi-adopted brother Moom go out, loan ledger in hand, to try and collect money that's owed to their mother. After an unsuccessful attempt that left them bullied and bruised, Zen puts her years of watching fights and kicking a wooden pillar into action -- aiming to go as far as she can to save her mother. I couldn't help but picture Oh Dae-su in Oldboy asking himself whether fifteen years of "imaginary training" could come to use in the real world, only to discover that "yes, it can".

Once the switch between character development and balls-out choreography gets flipped, Chocolate quickly focuses all attention on capturing JeeJa Yanin as she bruises, blisters, and bludgeons the living daylights out of her onslaught of opponents -- and, once she does, it's heart-pounding, non-stop action at its finest. Though the plot quickly devolves into little more than a framework to carry the bloodthirsty autistic girl from location to location, it still holds onto enough sentiment to give Zen's rampage an emotional core. She completely gravitates our attention to her kick-heavy style as she throws thugs around a crystal-blue icehouse, a neon-lit meat plant, as well as a couple of other locations. Though it obviously soaks into familiar Pinkaew territory by sending Zen through tight squeezes and underneath objects like glass-topped tables, the energy present in Yanin's petite, ferocious posturing is breathtaking enough to make it all feel fresh.

Blending boldly saturated visuals with slick editing and controlled shaky-cam movement, Chocolate is also a lot more visually appealing than Prachya Pinkaew's other works. As it progresses through Zen's path of destruction, we're treated to a bright, blooming color style that reminds me of a mish-mash between Korean cinematographer Hyung-ku Kim's work in The Host with some of the more suitably edited '90s Hong Kong pictures like Fist of Legend. This visual style gracefully captures Zen's transition from child to young adult -- an erratic time where she snatches apples out of thin air and pops chocolate off of her wrist into her mouth -- while focusing on simple cues that will come into play later in her story, such as her fear of flies and the way it connects to her ability to dodge all sorts of moving objects.

What really builds Chocolate into a martial arts triumph is, as to be expected, the breakout performance from JeeJa Yanin. She's completely enthralling as Zen, both in athletic capacity and acting chops, as she nails the almost comic-book style autistic renegade surprisingly well for being a first-time actress. Picture a late-teens/early-twenties female Rain Man with feet of fire, and you've got Zen. Yanin is challenged all throughout Chocolate, flinging herself through pipes in factories and against the rattling banister next to a train, all of which she hits faultlessly. But then, once she's worn slap out and coated with scuffs and bruises of her own, she pumps the film full of personality by soaking back into her high-function autistic persona. And, wouldn't you know it, she sells both sides of Zen with polish and a sort of quirky believability, earning herself a spot near the top of any ass-kicking heroine list.

It's the balance that Chocolate strikes between dazzling choreography and distinctive character development that makes it Prachya Pinkaew's best film to date, one that differs from his other efforts by having a story that we can actually grab a hold of and ride out until the end of this 92-minute breakneck rollercoaster. Its rhythm ebbs and flows like most other of its ilk -- all coming to a blood-soaked, bone-crunching whopper of a finale -- but the energy generated by its uniqueness takes it a step or two above most of the other martial arts showpieces pumping out of the region. Plus, it's strangely sweet and heartwarming, due in large part to the concentrated focus on JeeJa Yanin's quirky charm. She'll certainly put the years of spirited training she did for Chocolate to work in other pictures, but there's something about her freshman outing here that'll always glow as one of the genre's great hybrid performances.


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