Wednesday, February 11, 2009
CHOCOLATE (2008) d. Prachya Pinkaew
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
When movie lovers think of “fighting” motion pictures, there are a number of powerful images that comes to mind. When people think of movies filled with combat, they often summon up scenes of John Wayne battling cattle rustlers and Indians alike on the western frontier, or of Lee Marvin fighting anyone who deserved a good “lickin’” whether it was in a war flick, a crime story or whatever. Lovers of fantastical films are quick to point to superhero movies like BATMAN, SUPERMAN or SPIDERMAN as having some of the more titanic clashes to be seen on the Big Screen. Slightly more cosmopolitan cine-maniacs might call forth memories of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan pummeling the bad guys with both fists and feet and doing so in some of the most acrobatic of fashions. Asian martial arts films have often far exceeded their Western counterparts when it comes to the intensity of the fisticuffs, but when Americans think of such fare, they usually would point to Chinese or Japanese action films as the source for high octane, face pounding pugilism. Not too many years ago though, a new entrant into the world of martial arts excellence was born as Thai movies began to make their way to the shores of the United States. For those lucky enough to have seen some Thai cinema, it has all the raw energy and brutality of Hong Kong action flicks at their height. Much like Chinese film-making of yore, the Thai movie moguls will tackle just about any concept, and as a result, you never know what you’ll get or where it will take you. CHOCOLATE is just that kind of film, combining some strange bedfellows for story ideas and introducing one of the most unlikely of action heroines and bringing them all together into a flick that is a lot of fun and will make your pulse pound as well.
CHOCOLATE is the story of a mentally challenged young girl named Zen, suffering from a disability akin to autism, whose condition makes her social and emotional interaction with those around her a difficult prospect. Born to Zin, a caring mother connected to a set of Thai gangsters and criminals, Zen is witness to the brutal retribution exacted upon her mother when she tries to leave behind this disturbing life. Beset with serious health problems needing expensive medical treatment in the years after her “escape” from the mob, Zin’s efforts to raise her daughter are fraught with disastrous financial troubles. Zen begins a quest to call in the many favors and debts that people owe her mother, but it is not her sweet face that causes these many lowlifes to pay up. From her early days, Zen has readily displayed a surprising physical dexterity, which as she grew towards adolescence manifested itself in superior marital arts ability, augmented by her interest in studying the works of the masters on TV and those in her daily life. Zen relentlessly fights her way up a ladder of corruption that ends at the rung of the crime boss who brutalized her mother, which also reunites her with Zin’s long lost husband who is also her father, and sets up a stunning confrontation that turns out to be an epic battle of special needs proportions.
CHOCOLATE has a fascinating hybrid storyline. On one hand, there is a powerfully emotional and surprisingly earnest tale of a disabled child, her physically damaged mother and her ethnically and criminally estranged father. This triangle of woe provides much of the dramatic momentum of the narrative and is the primary foundation of the plot. However, very expertly grafted onto this main branch are the sinister elements of a classic crime story of mobs, violence, money, revenge and brutality, all more intensely fueled by issues involving race and then twisted tightly and intricately around this center stalk focusing on Zen’s special needs. Add to this already heady mixture the blazing intensity of martial arts action and special effects and you’ve got a movie whose story doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does so and quite brilliantly. There are quieter, more introspective moments in the first one-third of the film that allow the story to start at a leisurely but compelling pace punctuated by moments of extreme violence. As the family drama deepens and the mob story relaxes, the martial arts components assert themselves and then like fists flying furiously, the cadence of the movie begins to steadily accelerate. While not the morality play that is the Thai masterpiece TOM YUM GOONG (aka THE PROTECTOR in the US), the complexity of CHOCOLATE’S narrative and the brilliant construction of its pace makes CHOCOLATE just as compelling as other Thai martial arts epics like ONG-BAK and BORN TO FIGHT.
In addition to the fine writing, CHOCOLATE works on a lot of other levels. The performances of the primary actors are all either consistently strong or in some cases excellent. “Jija” Yanin Vismitananda (Zen) steals the show by creating a character that is at the same time lovable, implacable and unstable. Portraying a disabled person is not an easy task, especially for such a young actress. “Som” Amara Siripong (Zin) and Hiroshi Abe (Zen’s father Masashi) are also worthy of praise for their ability to create chemistry with “Zen” and with each other. These three are able to produce dramatic intensity without overplaying their roles and do it in such a way that their talents blend with the inspiring and passionate story. One a visual level, CHOCOLATE is well shot and there are compelling and exotic interior and exterior sets, many of them quite lovely. The costuming was also quirky and thoughtfully considered. The makeup and costumes of the mob were so over the top and bizarre at times that there is a note of humor that was injected into the narrative beyond Zen’s goofy male adolescent sidekick Mangmoom. What takes the prize in this movie though are the stunning fight sequences. What makes Thai action cinema so special is the phenomenal choreography combined with classic photographic techniques. Each battle looks spectacular and you can see everything. The director has the cameras pulled back so the entire fight scene can be comprehended and ENJOYED easily. There are no obnoxious close ups and ridiculous fast edits that heinously steal all the joy out of a set piece. In addition to the marvelous cinematography, the stunt work is so very evocative of Golden Age Jackie Chan, Yuen Baio, Jet Li and all the other great Hong Kong masters. People who do these unbelievable Thai fighting stunts are clearly putting their bodies in peril and do so for the art of the shot. They may be paying a terrible price physically, but their sacrifice is our gain for like other recent Thai epics, CHOCOLATE left me saying, “WOW”! On a final positive note, CHOCOLATE is presented in an English “dubbed” version or the original Thai language version with English subtitles. Do yourself a favor and watch the Thai version and skip the silly dubbing. So much more of the actor’s emotions are conveyed through their own voices and match their facial expressions and body language so much better.
CHOCOLATE has a thin but rewarding extras menu. Beyond the diverse language and audio options (thanks for that, not everyone does it the right way), there is a 9 minute “The Making of CHOCOLATE” that is slick, fast paced, subtitled in English and wonderfully informative. It looks at the background of the film and some of the on-set construction and outcomes of the set pieces. My only quarrel with this featurette is that it wasn’t long enough. I would have liked to have seen more. In addition, there is a small “Also from Magnolia Pictures” trailer vault that has the same three trailers which automatically come up before the Main Menu. While this isn’t the deepest Bonus Features cache I’ve ever seen, it does support an excellent film successfully.
The decline of American action films into unwatchable morasses of visual diarrhea, almost taking Hong Kong cinema with them, has had one beneficial upshot. It has left the market wide open for others to try and steal. There have been some French entrants that have been eye-catching, as well as some fine efforts from South Korea, but it is Thailand that is really producing the gems of the fighting mine today. Only by supporting efforts like CHOCOLATE and its Thai predecessors can we cast our vote to American film companies and say “Do things the right way you jerks!” CHOCOLATE is fun, fast and fabulous and if you miss this movie, you will miss out on seeing some first rate film-making that should send a shiver of excitement up your spine in a way that should remind you of ENTER THE DRAGON, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX or ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. We don’t get that kind of thrill much anymore, so what are you waiting for?