It may seem peevish to choose Prachya Pinkaew’s Thai action film over a pair of Luis Bunuel masterpieces or a Clint Eastwood box set or even Eric Rohmer’s latest delight. So be it. I concede that The Exterminating Angel is arguably the essential release of the week and that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a small release of a major film from a living treasure. But it’s just more fun to write about Chocolate.
Prachya Pinkaew put Thailand action cinema on the international map with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong), the martial arts movies that introduced stuntman Tony Jaa as an action hero. Like the martial classics of the seventies, these films threw stories together merely as an excuse to showcase the prowess of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Chocolate has a clever premise â€“ the autistic (or “special”) daughter of a retired Thai gang woman turns out to be a martial arts savant, absorbing the lessons of the martial arts studio next door and the action movies she devours on TV â€“ but it’s little more than an excuse to showcase Pinkaew’s latest discovery: JeeJa (also spelled JiJa) Yanin, a slip of a twenty-something woman playing the teenage dynamo named Zen.
Zen is the offspring of Zin (Ammara Siripong), a wild child on the Thai streets, and her Yakuza lover Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), who incurs the wrath of local crime boss, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) and is exiled back to Japan before his child is born. Zen is preternaturally attuned to the slightest sounds and movements around her and she obsessively watches martial arts movies (in particular, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior), rewinding the fight scenes to catch all the moves. Her childhood buddy/honorary big brother Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a way to turn her moves and hyper-senses into street-fair theater, playing barker while Zen catches objects out of the air without even turning her head. It’s all to pay for Zin’s hospital bills (did I mention she has cancer?) and Moom finds a potential payday when he finds a secret accounts book noting all these businessmen crooks who owe Zin money. Of course, they refuse to pay. Of course, Zen busts out her moves when every one of their manual laborers turns out to double as a henchman and unending streams of fighters converge on this diminutive girl. In one fight in an open-air butcher market, they brandish cleavers. Could you make her any more of an underdog?
Pinkaew plays with the idea of martial arts osmosis in the fights. When she takes on the crew of an ice-house, she (quite appropriately) does Bruce Lee, complete with whoops. (Which makes the absence of Bruce Lee film clips rather glaring â€“ was there a rights problem?) In a later sequence she turns to Tony Jaa’s trademark Thai boxing moves, notably leaping into the air and bringing her elbow or knee down on miscreant heads like a piledriver. Okay, this wisp of a girl doesn’t make it look quite as skull-crushing as beefy Tony Jaa did, but it’s still an impressive move and a clever twist of choreography. She just channels the fighter of choice (you’ll also spot bits of Jackie Chan in various scuffles) and lets loose. So does Pinkaew, who is more choreographer than director and not above second generation quoting – his final act opens on a fight that recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself a series of homages warped through Tarantino’s imagination.
Pinkaew lacks Tarantino’s imagination. His filmmaking is often sloppy and his film is filled with awkward performances and contrived mugging for the camera (that’s what passes as comic relief). The offbeat details – Number 8’sÂ “Lady Boys Gang” (honestly, that’s how they are identified in the credits), who are either butch women or tranvestites, and Zen’s inexplicable aversion to house-flies (the result of eating one, snatched out of the air like a frog, as a small child?) – are simply gimmicks that are tossed off and quickly forgotten. But the fights are terrific, tightly choreographed with a good sense of ensemble movement and shot in long takes that preserve the fluidity of the action, like eighties-style Hong Kong action movies. For the finale, which spills out into the alley, up onto a commuter train bridge and all over the warren-like ledges and balconies and hallways of a slum apartment complex, he delivers the “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt” brand of Hong Kong stunts that can still make you wince (watch our bad guy hit every railing – plus a handy neon sign attached to the side of the building – on the fall from the fourth floor). And Pinkaew takes another cue from Jackie Chan movies and runs his closing credits over outtakes and injuries.
The film was a big hit in Thailand. Magnolia gave the film a limited stateside theatrical release on February 6 (it played midnight-only shows in Seattle) before its February 10 release on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s part of Magnolia’s integrated marketing strategy for select foreign and indie films. The DVD features both original Thai and English dub soundtracks with optional subtitles (I watched the Thai soundtrack) and includes the featurette “Making of Chocolate.”
Other notable DVD releases this week: