A word of advice: try and approach Ong Bak director Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate - his new martial arts film starring female lead “Jeeja” Vismistananda – as pure spectacle. On that level it is truly astounding. Go in expecting significant plot and character work, however, and you’ll walk away disappointed. The lessons dictated by the narrative weakness of Pinkaew’s Tom Yum Goong AKA The Protector have clearly not been learned. Vismistananda, however, is an immediate physical marvel, a sure fire international action star of the highest order.
Vismistananda plays Zen, the autistic daughter of a Tai woman and Japanese gangster. Her father driven out of the country by a rival gang leader, Zen has been left in the care of her mother, a woman who has tried her best to put aside her criminal past to give her all to supporting her handicapped daughter. It is clear early that like a small percentage of autistic children, Zen is something of a savant. While most autistic savant’s skills lie in the world of math, Zen’s are more physical talents: she has an extremely developed sense of muscle memory. Once she sees something enacted before her she is able to mimic that action flawlessly. And, living next to a martial arts dojo with kung fu and muay thai films – Pinkaew shamelessly intercutting footage from his earlier, Tony Jaa starring efforts – playing constantly on the television, Zen has lots to learn.
Theirs is a quiet life, a simple one even, until Zen’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and needs expensive chemotherapy treatments, treatments they have no hope of paying until a long hidden book detailing old mob debts is discovered and Zen sets out on a violent mission to reclaim those debts in support of her poor sick mother. Throw in a gang of rather unattractive transsexuals and a very underused Hiroshi Abe as Zen’s yakuza father and you have the nuts and bolts of the film.
Weaknesses? Yes, there are several. The plot is wafer thin, character development virtually non-existent. The film lacks significant featured fighters for Zen to square off against and, as such, tends towards simple line-em-up, knock-em-down fights that can get repetitive quickly. And, on a technical end, it dramatically over does the film speed manipulation in obvious and unnecessary ways, I spotted a pair of visible wires and a number of ‘pucker’ marks on clothes where the wire rigs connected, and the fights are occasionally over edited.
Strengths? Vismistananda herself is astounding – making the film speed up much more perplexing – and once the action begins it is absolutely unrelenting. The final fight scene alone – a one versus thirty or so affair that scales the outer ledges and neon signs of a multi story building and sent at least one stunt man to hospital – is absolutely jaw dropping, an instant classic in the martial arts world and one which is, all on its own, more than worth the price of admission.
Do I enjoy Chocolate for what it is? Absolutely. Do I wish it were also just a little bit more? Damn straight. One of these days Pinkaew is going to realize that good script is just as important as a skilled performer to make lasting work, even in the martial arts world, and when that day comes he is going to make an absolute classic but that day has not yet arrived.