Review: Chocolate

After watching Ip Man and its sequel, I’ve been on a bit of a martial arts bent lately. And while I love a good chop-socky movie, they are very difficult to review, because for the most part they only serve as excuses to watch talented martial artists kick serious ass in well-choreographed fight scenes. If you’re a fan of the genre, like myself, those fight scenes are enough to carry an entire film regardless of how stupid the plot may be. But a careful balance is required in order to keep viewers engaged through the flimsy plot portions of the film, awaiting the arrival of the next awesome action sequence. Chocolate is unique because it is quite imbalanced when it comes to plot and action, but the fights are good enough that you might not mind. I know I didn’t.

Before I get into my review of Chocolate, I feel it’s necessary that I preface things by discussing the director of the movie – Pratchya Pinkaew. At the time of this writing, Pinkaew had only directed two films of note: Ong Bak and The Protector (a.k.a. Tom Yum Goong), both of which star the amazing Tony Jaa. And in the cases of Ong Bak and The Protector, both films are only really noteworthy because they serve as demonstrations of Jaa’s incredible martial arts talents. The plots of the movies are so basic that I can sum them up in a single sentence: someone steals something belonging to Tony Jaa, and then he kicks everyone’s asses until he gets it back. That’s it. There is absolutely nothing beyond that. When it comes to Chocolate, Pinkaew actually strays from his Tony Jaa movie formula, but not by much, and in the end Chocolate is just a Tony Jaa movie without Tony Jaa.

Chocolate is the story of Zen, the young daughter of a Thai woman who was formerly in a relationship with a Yakuza crime lord named Number 8. Zen is autistic, but has extremely fast reflexes and can learn at an alarming rate, and when she discovers the joy of watching Tony Jaa movies (I’m not even joking), she quickly picks up the martial art of Muay Thai. After it is discovered that Zen’s mother Zin has cancer, Zen and her “brother” (actually a street orphan adopted by her mother) Moom decide that they have to raise money for Zin’s cancer treatment. At first they do this by performing a busking act wherein bystanders are offered the chance to throw balls at Zen, who easily catches them, but this doesn’t prove to be much of a moneymaker. When Zen discovers Number 8’s old notebook full of lists of people who owe him money, she decides to visit each name on the list and collect. What follows is about 45 minutes of solid action scenes as she beats up everybody who refuses to give her money (read: everyone she asks to pay up), finally ending with a confrontation between Zen and Number 8.

Chocolate is a pretty bizarre movie. The meta nature of the plot, wherein Pinkaew directs a movie about an autistic girl who loves his films, is highly unusual, and it’s pretty unlikely that we’d ever see a movie like this made in Hollywood. Add to this the fact that the film centers on an autistic martial artist and you’ve got a recipe for weirdness. Watching this, I was actually reminded a lot of the film The Crippled Masters, as it makes the disabled protagonist into an ass-kicking machine and a sort of force of justice. Unlike The Crippled Masters, however, the star of Chocolate, JeeJa Yanin, is not actually disabled, and thus Chocolate exists somewhere between exploitation cinema and politically incorrect offensiveness. But the point of the movie was never really the plot anyway, although it is a pretty unique story. It’s almost like Forrest Gump with martial arts. Almost.

As with every martial arts film, and basically all of Pinkaew’s movies, the real point of Chocolate is the fight sequences, and let me tell ya: they are every bit as fast and brutal as what we have come to expect from Pinkaew after Ong Bak and The Protector. JeeJa Yanin is so spry and petite that she flies around the screen with graceful ease. She’s fast, and she has obviously had extensive training, so every fight that breaks out is thrilling to watch. This is one of those martial arts movies that makes you wonder just how many stuntmen died while filming it, because it looks for all the world like everybody working on this movie got hurt in many painful ways.

The stand-out moment of the film for me came right near the very end when, suddenly and without warning, it is revealed that Number 8 has among his thugs his own mentally challenged martial artist whose strange, almost Tourettes-like twitchiness is just so strange that it throws Zen off for a moment. But Zen, being the fast learner that she is, quickly picks up his twitchy maneuvers and uses them against him. It’s by far the weirdest moment in a movie that’s already pretty weird, but it came from so far out of left field that I couldn’t help but grin.

Chocolate is not a movie for everybody. There’s a lot here that sensitive viewers could find offensive or difficult to watch. There is also a lot of material that martial arts fans will adore, and the fights are excellent, but I should warn you that there is no semblance of action of any kind during the film’s first half hour, and I found it so boring that I nearly abandoned the movie entirely. But I’m glad that I didn’t, because right around the half hour mark the action revs up to a fever pitch and hardly slows down at all. There are all kinds of terrific fight sequences, and it was clear to me by the end of the film that Pinkaew should really just stick to directing action scenes, as that is obviously where his talent lies. So if you’re in the mood for an unusual chop-socky flick that centers on an autistic girl kicking ass and taking names, then Chocolate is definitely the movie for you. But the script is pretty terrible, so brace yourself when you pop this in your DVD player.

Oh, and as a final note, this film has nothing to do with chocolate.

3 out of 5

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