Jan 24, 2009

Chocolate [18]

Dir: Prachya Pinkaew
All martial arts films have the same story. Character wants something, other characters won’t hand it over, kicking ensues. Chocolate doesn’t break the mould, it doesn’t even dent it, but it’s one of the best martial arts movies to have come along in a very long time. The story has young Zin (Jeeja Yanin) trying to collect on debts owed her former gangster mother (Ammara Siripong), who is now in hospital with an unspecified cancer and has bills piling up. The twist is that Zin is autistic, but has learned martial arts through an amazing aptitude for mimicking the action stars she’s seen on TV.

Chocolate, like director Pinkaew’s other films (Ong BakWarrior King) has a sentimental streak, and takes a little while to really ramp up into the action sequences, but like Ong Bak, once the action does arrive it is absolutely awe inspiring. As usual, the first fight scene, which comes 18 minutes in, is more a preview than anything, it lasts barely a couple of minutes, and the choreography is pretty simple, but even this early there are moments and moves that will find you picking your jaw up from the floor. Jeeja Yanin trained for two years before shooting, which then took another two years (the film is just 93 minutes long), and you can see the result of those endless hours of work as you watch Chocolate, there’s not a missed step, not a move that looks sloppy, you can feel the blood, sweat and tears in every frame.

Jeeja Yanin, like Tony Jaa before her, is an extraordinary discovery. A tiny young woman of just 22, she looks as if the wind might blow her away, at times watching her fight is like watching a pixie try to beat up a giant. If, of course, the pixie was unspeakably hard. The speed of Yanin’s moves is just astounding, but you’d expect that from a whippet thin girl, what’s more surprising is the sheer amount of power she seems to have. At first the idea of a tiny autistic girl being able to take on armies of fighters seems outlandish, but as soon as that first fight is over you immediately buy into the idea.

About half of the film's brief running time is given over totally to fight sequences. There are several major set pieces and Pinkaew and his team make sure each is inventive and distinctive. There is the brief street fight, a warehouse set fight which sees Yanin dodging through railings and shelves, an ice factory set homage to The Big Boss, in which Yanin even echoes Bruce Lee’s whooping vocalizations. There’s a blistering fight in a meat market, involving knives and staves, there’s a rooftop fight, half of which is fought crouched, there’s the 12 against 1 hand to hand fight, and Yanin fending off samurai swords with the aid of two sheaths. Then there’s the unbelievable final fight, which begins on the side of a railway bridge, and ends up being fought across street signs and the side of a building. Through all of these, the choreography stays highly inventive, and every single fight throws up at least a few moments you’ll have to rewind, just to believe they happened (Yanin kicking another girl into a pipe)

Aside from her physical prowess, and her girl next door beauty, Jeeja Yanin stands out in Chocolate because she also gives a decent dramatic performance, she’s actually fairly convincing as an autistic young adult, and that helps keep the film engaging between fights. Chocolate is a martial arts fan’s dream, and a film you must see if you even remotely enjoy the genre.

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