2008, R, 89 min. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Starring Jija Yanin Vismistananda, Hiroshi Abe, Ammara Siriphong, Taphon Phopwandee, Pongpat Wachirabunjong.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 13, 2009
From now on I'm sticking to Thai. Food, that is. I'm not entirely sure if it's that country's sodden humidity, Bangkok's fevered dreamscape, the pragmatic Buddhism, or simply the Thailanders' exquisite diet of soothing, steaming bowls of Tom Ka and hellfire-spicy Panang curry, but something over there is continually resulting in several of the most exciting martial arts movies since Gordon Liu kicked the hinges off The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Chocolate, the new stunner from the director of the equally hyperkinetic Ong-Bak, covers many more bases than that Tony Jaa has of late. Equal parts sentimental tale of a daughter's love for her ailing mother and one seriously sustained martial ballet of stunningly well choreographed slam-bam set-pieces, this is director Pinkaew's bid for, perhaps, a broader audience than those who only know of his work from the Jaa-starring Ong-Bak and the lesser Tom Yum Goong. So frenetic is the stunt work here that it's hard to imagine anyone involved in the production not needing radical spinal surgery on a daily basis. And I mean that in the best way. Flying fisticuffs of muay thai fury minus story equals not a whole lot pretty quickly, but Chocolate delivers the goods on both counts. So far as I know, this is the only film (from anywhere, much less Thailand) to feature a young, female protagonist who's not only a whirling, leaping force of nature but is also … autistic. Newcomer Vismistananda plays Zen, who, as the film's stateside tagline so eloquently puts it, is "a special-needs girl with a special need to kick some ass." The daughter of an exiled yakuza (Abe) and a mother (Siriphong) cut off from her only source of income when feral crime lord No. 8 (Wachirabunjong) takes issue with her paterfamilias, Zen and mother Zin move out of the big city and conveniently relocate right next door to a Thai boxing academy. The preteen Zen, gifted with the sort of autism that allows her to watch, learn, and master muay thai at an astonishing rate, has as her only friend chubby teen Moom (Phopwandee). But when her mother comes down with cancer and Moom discovers a ledger of never-repaid financial debts from Zin's days of being wild, Zen takes her particular (and baffling, to her nemeses) form of debt collection to the streets. Pain and cash flow ensue. At its heart, Chocolate is a simple tale of a special girl trying to make her way in a considerably unspecial world. Vismistananda is spectacular, not only as a martial artist but as a preternaturally gifted actor who consistently displays the full gamut of human emotion as viewed through the scrim of autism. Her sheer screen charisma is enough to knock you out, if, perchance, all those impossibly high kicks somehow fail. Sure, Chocolate is rife with melodrama of the purest and occasionally most cloying stripe, but where would avenging Thai angels-in-the-making be without it? I'm guessing not in Hong Kong.