The Plot: Zen is a young girl born of a Japanese yakuza father and Thai gangster mother. The two were never meant to fall in love, and Zen’s mother was forced into a life of exile due to this. Zen’s mother leads a simple life taking care of her and her cousin, but as the years go by her mother begins to grow sick and it is revealed she has cancer and is dying. When Zen was born she was born with a learning disability that is most likely autism. Although not known at first, she turns out to be a savant and extremely athletic as well. After watching the muay thai students next door and growing up watching Kung Fu films (Ong Bak in particular) she has developed her own style of fighting which she doesn’t put to use until her cousin finds a book that lists all of the old mobsters who owe her mom money. With hospital debt skyrocketing, getting these gangsters to pay back what they owe turns out to be Zen and her cousin’s only option – and these gangsters will pay; one way or another.
This my friends, is exactly what Thailand’s film community needed. At least as far as action cinema goes. In the wake of Tony Jaa going completely and totally out of his ever loving mind while attempting to direct himself in Ong Bak 2, the Thai movie industry needed to step up and produce another breakout star. Even more, director Prachya Pinkaew who helmed the Jaa vehicles Ong Bak and The Protector, he had a lot to prove to the world as far his own talents go in making a martial arts film without Jaa leading the way. I guarantee you, after you watch Chocolate unless you’re a raving Jaa-a-holic, you’ll be singing this directors praises because he was able to go out and create a story that defeats his previous films; and direct action and co-ordinate just fine without any of Jaa’s input. As someone who actually wasn’t as impressed with The Protector as a whole lot of folks seemed to be, I had only minor hopes for Chocolate. After seeing the trailer and seeing the female lead at work, I admit I was pretty hyped up. Watching the film though, well, what can I say it is just everything that is great about cinema in my opinion. This is the stuff that marks all the reasons why I started watching martial arts films. The innovation, the spectacle, the excitement, the fluid choreography and Chocolate adds that little extra something that not all of these films usually have: the story. A reason to love these characters, a reason to feel for them and a reason to root for them. Having an autistic child as the lead and a mother slowly dying of cancer – these aren’t you usual feel good martial arts motifs by a longshot and if it were not for the fantastic performances from the cast something like that could have brought the film down. Having a handicap like Zen does in the story; they could have played it off in a ridiculous manner. Maybe with a humorous bent to it like Sammo Hung did with his character in Heart of Dragon, but instead the portrayal is in a serious tone. I don’t know enough about savant syndrome to say whether such things are even remotely possible, but the film creates an atmosphere of realism and it becomes easy to believe. Not understanding the language, of course its hard for a English-only sap to really gauge performances to a degree that a Thai filmgoer possible could – and I read a review earlier tonight from a Thai film-goer who said the performances were awful – but I’m not exactly new to reviewing foreign films here either. There’s a lot more to a performance, particularly in an action film, than line delivery. JeeJa Yenin who stars in the film as Zen puts on a show from start to finish, putting in a lot of emotion as well as displaying some tremendous acrobatic talent. I don’t know how well she may have delivered her lines, but she impressed the heck out of me.
I am going to make a bold statement that most of you will not agree with, but I’m going to say it anyway… Chocolate KILLS The Protector. It doesn’t just kill it, it keeps it tied up in the basement with a rag in its mouth and is ritually dismembered. Is the action that much better? Not really, is Jaa the better martial artist? Sure. Is this film a billion times more entertaining and exciting? Why, as a matter of fact yes it is! I can’t help it! Don’t kill me, just an opinion, but a true opinion of mine for sure. Tony Jaa is a brilliant performer when it comes to his fighting prowess and athletic ability – but you’ll never get me to refer to him as the most engaging or charismatic martial arts film star on the market. When watching The Protector, I had several biases against it. First is my disapproval of Jaa’s character which didn’t seem to have that wholesome innocence of his previous film Ong Bak – which I thought was one of the main reasons his portrayal in that film actually worked. Then there was the setting which moved away from the inner city style of Thailand to the less worrysome streets of Australia. I can’t tell you the reason why it didn’t work for me, but it never did no matter how much I tried to get into. I never found myself glued to the screen with that huge grin on my face like I did when first watching Ong Bak – or like I did tonight while sitting through Chocolate. That same passion Pinkaew’s breakout film had is back, and although I will agree that any fight scene featuring Tony Jaa is going to do nothing but benefit; the fight sequences here are top notch as well. A lot of viewers go into the film expecting balls out action from the very start however and I’m going to tell you now don’t even do it. I’ve read enough complaints so far about the lack of action in the first thirty minutes which I find ridiculous. Perhaps mainstream audiences have become too spoiled by modern martial arts films, but it isn’t lik Chocolate is taking the whole genre in a new direction by establishing a strong story and defining its characters for the first thirty minutes or so. Many Kung Fu films followed a similar pattern and most of the time they were better for it. Five Deadly Venoms, if you go back and watch it, can be a pretty slow film. Same thing for much of Bruce Lee’s work which had even less spectacular choreography. Shaolin Master Killer must have an hour worth of training sequences, which is the main draw of the film, so yeah you can expect a very fleshed out bit of development in Chocolate but I promise it is never boring nor distracting. If you can allow yourself be as absorbed as I was during that introductory love story and the subsequent introduction to the daughter born from it – you are going to find probably a simply amazing martial arts film.
There’s so much to go over. The fight sequences are broken up into about five or six highly choreographed pieces. Depending on where you want to cut between one fight sequence and another, they start to really blend together there at the end as our characters fight from one set to another. Including in what starts off as a quaint oriental bar, then breaks through the wall onto a rooftop and ends in another giant forieger that looks like the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill. That comparison seems to get made a lot, but believe me, JeeJa Yenin is much more the acrobat/performer in the action department than any of the amazing women in that particular film and even with Yuen Woo-Ping directing the choreography there Chocolate still seems the more genuine and simply spectacular in terms of the action. From the “simple” things like Yenin moving forward in a flipping motion, her doing a vertical split of sorts, or her wrapping her right leg around her opponents attacking arm and bending it into a submission hold before smacking him down, there is a lot to fawn over in this one. Another bit I loved was her jumping from the top of one shelf to another while doing a 360 degree spin-split. Although she apparently had some help through wires throughout the film, it is never obvious and I truthfully would have wondered about it if it were not for the credits which like older Jackie Chan films feature all of the dangerous outtakes – and it is apparent she is wearing a harness during at least one of the more dangerous stunts. Chocolate starts off slow with the first two fight sequences, a little slower than what is to come later featuring just a few bits of flash – however once you get to the warehouse scenes… wow! I found myself shouting obscenities that I dare not repeat here so many times while watching Chocolate and all I can do is recommend you guys get out there and see it as well.
This fits right in there with the best of Jackie Chan’s older stunt-kungfu fused work. That perfect blend of Harold Lloyd’s daring Safety Last (where you find yourself in fear for the characters as they go through these highly dangerous feets) and adrenaline pumping action. Check it out and pay your respects to these brilliant performers and filmmakers who all deserve every bit of respect they get. I give the film my highest honors in the Stubbing Award and a 5 out of 5. Is it a film that will change your life? Probably not, but I wouldn’t put it past it, but is it everything an action film should be? Without question. Seek this one out!