by Mel Valentin
With "Tom Yum Goong" (released stateside as "The Protector") and "Ong-Bak," director Prachya Pinkaew, fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai, and action star Tony Jaa, have brought Muay Thai, a martial art indigenous to Thailand, to Western audiences. Pinkaew and Rittikrai are back with their latest collaboration, "Chocolate," but without Tony Jaa. Pinkaew and Rittikrai trained newcomer Yanin “JeeJa” Vismitananda for four years to prepare for her debut as an autistic teenager with the inexplicable ability to absorb martial arts skills simply from watching them on television (or otherwise performed). With action scenes that have to be seen to be disbelieved, a ludicrous premise, and dubious representations of gender, "Chocolate" is everything martial arts fans have come to expect from the genre (and less).Chocolate takes the better part of 30 minutes before the teenaged heroine, Zen (Yanin “JeeJa” Vismitananda), finally steps up and begins to put her martial arts expertise to bone-cracking and tendon-tearing use in an effort to obtain enough money for her cancer-stricken mother, Zin (Ammara Siripong). A former loan shark, associate, and lover of Gangster No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong), Zin has spent years hiding from No. 8, all the time heeding No. 8’s warning not to contact her Japanese husband, Zen’s father, and Yakuza member, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). Thanks, apparently, to the redemptive power of romantic love, Zin has given up the thug life for motherhood. Zin has also taken Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee), an overweight, parentless kid, into her home that becomes Zen’s de facto brother and caretaker.
"Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to a new action star."
It’s Mangmoom who takes advantage of Zen’s awe-inspiring hand-eye coordination to raise money for Zin’s cancer treatment, first as street performers and when that proves insufficient, by using Zen as an enforcer to collect Zin’s old debts. Of course, Zin’s former clients aren’t eager repay her, leaving Mangmoom with unleashing Zen as his only choice. What follows are several set pieces, beginning with a fight in an ice factory (an homage to Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss, with Zen imitating his fighting style, mannerisms, and vocalizations), to a generic warehouse, a slaughterhouse, and finally, a 20-minute fight sequence between Zen and No. 8’s henchmen (and a transvestite) first inside a dojo (a hat tip to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I), where she takes on faceless thugs and a twitchy, tracksuit-wearing fighter (Kittitat Kowahagul), and flowing out of the same scene, fighting No. 8 and his depleted gang on and around the façade of a three-story building.
Chocolate’s strengths don’t lie with its threadbare, overly sentimental, implausible screenplay by Chukiat Sakveerakul and Nepalee Sakweerakul, but rather with the martial arts choreography that takes up most of Chocolate’s brief running time. With Pinkaew and Rittikrai to guide her, Yanin “JeeJa” Vismitananda makes for a credible martial arts heroine. Borrowing fighting styles from Tony Jaa, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and her own background in taekwondo, Yanin did all of her own stunts (as the end credits attest). She uses elbows, knees, shins, and fists as part of a unique fighting mash-up style. Working mostly without wires (the last scene on the façade excepted), Yanin shows remarkable versatility and even more remarkable resilience, as do, of course, the nameless stunt men and women who bear the brunt of Yanin’s punches, kicks, and elbows to various body parts.
As an actress, however, Yanin isn’t as convincing. Pinkaew wisely didn’t ask much from his Yanin. She has minimal dialogue and generally passive when she’s not fighting. While the other performances aren’t particularly memorable, at least they’re not distractingly amateurish. That might not be saying a lot, but actors in martial arts films are rarely, if ever, picking for their acting chops, only if they can handle the basic line readings and blocking necessary to get from one action-filled set piece to another. Then again, in a martial arts film, choreographed action takes precedence over performances.When it comes to the representation of women, "Chocolate" falls short. With the exception of Zen in Terminator-mode, the other female characters tend to be passive, waiting to be helped or rescued. For no apparent reason, a transvestite gang also makes an appearance, but it’s in the last shot, with the uncomfortably return of the status quo and Zen dressed as a schoolgirl and eating comfort food (e.g., candy) that "Chocolate" betrays its unfortunately retrograde gender politics, spoiling what was otherwise a remarkably enjoyable sub-90-minute martial arts film. Hopefully Pinkaew’s next effort with Yanin (already in production) will avoid "Chocolate’s" pitfalls and deliver guilt-free entertainment.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17778&reviewer=402
originally posted: 02/10/09 20:02:25