Prachya Pinkaew put Thailand action cinema on the international map with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003) and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong, 2005), martial arts movies built around star Tony Jaa, a former stuntman who delivers eye-popping action scenes.
Chocolate (Thailand, 2008) has a clever premise: the autistic (or “special”) daughter of a retired Thai gang woman turns out to be a martial arts savant, absorbing the lessons of the martial arts studio next door and the action movies she devours on TV. The premise, however, is little more than an excuse to showcase Pinkaew’s latest discovery: JeeJa Yanin, a slip of a twenty-something woman playing the teenage dynamo named Zen.
Zen, the daughter of a Thai wild child (Ammara Siripong) and her exiled Yakuza lover (Hiroshi Abe), is preternaturally attuned to the slightest sounds and movements around her. She obsessively watches martial arts movies (in particular, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior), rewinding the fight scenes to catch all the moves, and she reproduces them in a form of street theater with her childhood buddy/honorary big brother (Taphon Phopwandee) as her manager and barker. There’s a sick mother and hospital bills and crooked businessmen and before long she’s taking on armies of henchmen.
Director Pinkaew plays with the idea of martial arts osmosis in the fights. When Zen takes on the crew of an ice-house, she (quite appropriately) does Bruce Lee (complete with his whooping cries, and then turns to Tony Jaa’s trademark Thai boxing moves, notably leaping into the air and bringing her elbow or knee down on miscreant heads like a piledriver. She just channels the fighter of choice (you’ll also spot bits of Jackie Chan in various scuffles) and lets loose.
So does Pinkaew, who is more choreographer than director. The filmmaking is often sloppy and filled with awkward performances and contrived mugging for the camera (that’s what passes as comic relief). But the fights are terrific, tightly choreographed with a good sense of ensemble movement and shot in long takes that showcase the fluidity of the action, like eighties-style Hong Kong action movies. And Pinkaew takes another cue from Jackie Chan movies and runs his closing credits over outtakes and injuries.
Rated R, in Thai and Japanese with English subtitles
The Blu-ray and DVD editions feature both original Thai and English dub soundtracks, optional subtitles, and the featurette “Making of Chocolate.”