AKA: Zen, Warrior Within
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Writer: Chookiat Sakveerakul, Nepali
Cast: Yanin Vismitananda, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Taphon Phopwandee, Ammara Siripong, Dechawut Chuntakaro, Hirokazu “Hero” Sano
Running Time: 92/100 min.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Thai action movie Chocolate when it first came out in 2008, but revisiting it a few weeks ago on blu-ray – with the sound cranked – I think I loved it even more. This is a Thai action movie I feel will stand the test of time for fans of females who kick butt. Star Jeeja Yanin literally came out of nowhere and debuted with a film that has fight scenes and stunts that nearly rival Jackie Chan in his heyday.
Reportedly director Prachya Pinkaew (Ong Bak) saw Jeeja Yanin performing Taekwondo and was impressed enough to cast her in her own movie. This was a gamble that paid off remarkably. Jeeja engaged in rigorous Muay Thai and stunt training before cameras started rolling on Chocolate. Whether you love or hate Pinkaew’s style of filmmaking, all you need to do is watch the outtakes to know that Yanin is willing to bleed for her art.
The story has the potential to be offensive – I’ve heard it half-seriously labeled “special needs’ploitation” since Yanin’s character has autism. Yanin plays the result of a star-crossed romance between a Thai female gangster and a member of the Yakuza. Her parents split when she is a baby in order to prevent an all-out gang war and the mom ends up raising Yanin on her own. Yanin is indeed a special child, one who lacks social skills but has an uncanny sense of hearing and the ability to mimic whatever she sees performed in front of her – including martial arts moves. She studies the films of Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee, as well as the fighters in the gym that just so happens to be outside her window. In a few years’ time she becomes a prime ass-kicker.
Yanin ends up needing to raise money for her mother’s medical bills. Along with her childhood friend, she goes around to collect the money that various corrupt businesses owe her mom from her days in the Thai mafia. What follows are several set-pieces where shady managers order their employees to beat up Yanin and she lays waste to them in spectacular fashion. After a bit of a slow start, this movie is almost non-stop martial arts action.
What I love about the fights is that Yanin doesn’t just be a the crap out of everybody; the filmmakers went out of their way to feature the kind of obstacle-maneuvering stuff that Jackie Chan would do in his heyday. Yanin slides under glass tables, slips through spaces that the bad guys can’t fit in, swings through guard rails, etc. She’s really a marvel to watch.
The ending provides what might be a homage to the House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill: Volume 1, with Yanin taking on about 80 guys in black suits in a Japanese restaurant. She’s also finally provided with a fellow martial arts master to truly test her mettle. To say that the finale brings the house down would be an understatement; it features a death-defying sequence high above the ground that put at least one Thai stuntman in a neckbrace.
If you don’t enjoy the bone-breaking simplicity of most Thai action movies like Ong Bak, then Chocolate probably isn’t going to change your mind. But for people who love this kind of stuff or get a drug-like high from it (heh), then Chocolate is the ultimate fix. JeeJa Yanin is cute as a button and kicks ass like nobody’s business. Her character is a likable protagonist and you actually care about her quest to help her mom, which does strengthen the movie.
I’m certain JeeJa Yanin has an excellent career ahead of her, but if debut film goes down as her finest moment I might not be surprised. Chocolate features the kind of electrifying action sequences that ensure it will be watched and re-watched by martial arts fans for years to come.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 10/10