Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.
Don’t be fooled by the unassuming, unusually reserved title of this film. Chocolate is a martial arts genre film. Thankfully, the DVD cover shows a bruised young woman with a steely glare and holding an eastern sword to alert us to the nature of this film. On the reverse is a photo of the young woman looking into the camera while doing a reverse back kick. The cover photos were enough for me to take a chance on purchasing this film.
Only recently have I discovered that there is a subset of men that enjoy watching women beating up men. I don’t mean to sound perverse, but I think I fall into this category of men. I like to think that the reason for my predilection is that I have empathy for the downtrodden. The treatment of women through the ages has been deplorable although I realize that women were revered as goddesses by some cultures at certain times in history.
While channel surfing during the daytime, I caught a segment of Maury Povich berating men who treated their spouses like slaves. It seemed like the guests were actors with the wives being demure and soft-spoken, their heads down in the presence of their husbands. But I suppose relationships like this do exist in real-life. I don’t think the women were physically abused, but they were surely mentally abused. When audience members were allowed to voice their opinions, a huge man got up and spoke menacingly that if he ever met one of these guys in an alley in an alleyway, he would give them a beat-down. I was right with that guy. If a woman had gotten up to deliver that ultimatum, I think I would have stood up from my sofa and pumped my fist in the air.
The heroine of this film is Yanin “Jeeja” Vismitananda, who is a petite, 23 year-old, accomplished in tae kwon do, gymnastics and Thai boxing. She is not an actress, but I think she played her part well given that she was required to play someone with autism. (Note that I didn’t mind the acting by the inexperienced actors in Gran Torino.) The director, Prachya Pinkaew, was originally looking for a sexy, beautiful woman with martial arts abilities to play the heroine. He’s the guy who groomed Tony Jaa and directed his breakout films Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector). Because of her physical abilities, he settled on Jeeja, who he considered to be plain-looking and tom-boyish.
I think I’m not alone in finding Jeeja cute and pretty, but I admit my vision might be clouded by my attraction to strong women. When I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I remember not paying much attention to Ziyi Zhang’s princess character. As the film progressed, she displayed her spunkiness. And we saw her unafraid to take on anyone. By the end of the tea tavern fight, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
So what is Chocolate about? Does the plot of a martial arts film really matter? I suppose it helps to have some engaging banter or visuals in between the fight sequences. The obvious plot for a â€œwoman beating up menâ€ story would be to have a woman get raped and then seek revenge by undergoing training to get some fighting skills. This movie takes its own rather unique, not quite believable way in handling this type of plot. There is a slow build-up to the action, but the visuals are beautiful and the drama is artfully done. The camera doesn’t overstay its welcome in any scene.
A Yakuza member has a daughter (the heroine of the story) with a Thai call-girl. A Thai mob doesn’t like the Japanese on its turf, so the Yakuza member flees the country, leaving the mother to raise her daughter. The daughter has autism. She takes comfort from eating Smarties (or maybe they’re M&Ms), hence, the title of the movie. She grows up watching people practicing martial arts outside her window. She also has a steady diet of martial arts films like Ong Bak and Bruce Lee movies. The first scene in which her fighting skills are introduced is awesome as she efficiently dispatches the punks. Combined with her reflexes and physical prowess, her ability to mimic fighting skills makes her an unstoppable force. With the mother’s cancer treatments requiring money and a Thai mob boss holding a grudge against the mother and daughter, there are plenty of opportunities in which to stage a fight scene.
There are a variety of set pieces with homage aplenty to Bruce Lee. Locations include an ice factory, a meat market, a warehouse, a rooftop, a Japanese domicile, a bridge base, and an apartment building side! I thought the cinematography was excellent with the lighting reflecting the environment.
Like the Tony Jaa films, the camera is optimally placed to allow you to see the movements and the impacts. I loved the action choreography, especially when she used an efficient fighting style. I recognized some of Bruce Lee’s posturing and fighting style with foot blocking of kicks. There is even a moment in which she defeats an opponent by using a Bruce Lee philosophy that she is particularly adept at implementing. To convey the awesome choreography, I tried to take some screenshots from the DVD, but the constant fight movement made it impossible to capture the glory. As an example of the inventiveness of the fight choreography, Jeeja does a slow motion flying one knee-drop on an opponent while a train zooms by in the background giving a sense of extra speed to the moment.
The trend with Asian films nowadays is to actually show contact being made. I hope the stunt-person societies over there don’t form unions anytime soon, because I love seeing the impacts. During Chocolate, I physically winced and exclaimed out loud every once in a while. The injuries shown during the end credits of Chocolate put similar end credit sequences in Jackie Chan films to shame.
I wonder if Jeeja’s character could be a role-model for autistic people. I’ve never seen a film hero with autism. Maybe Chocolate could start a trend of heroes with disabilities. (Sorry, I don’t know the politically correct way to say this.) But I guess it’s continuing the tradition of martial arts movies like Zatoichi and The One-Armed Swordsman. (Sorry, I’m being irreverent.)
The version of the film I watched was only about 80 minutes, but I was exhausted by the end. From other reviews of Chocolate that I have read, everyone seems to think that Pinkaew’s films with Tony Jaa are better. There is the obvious pun that Chocolate is â€œempty calories.â€ Well, I love Chocolate (the candy and the movie).