With so many martial arts films released these days it takes something special to stand out from the crowd. The most popular films all have something in common. All have interesting stories. The basis for most interesting films I think you would agree. All good martial arts movies have the most extraordinary fight sequences. Usually inventive, always fast and laced with humour. Lastly the film usually has an interesting and unique lead character.
As part of the recent martial arts season on Film4 in the UK I managed to catch the film Chocolate (also known as Zen – The warrior within). Billed as a sweet, brutal and bloody treat from Prachya Pinkaew, the director of Ong-Bak it had a high expectation to live up to. Often when built up in that way a film can fall short. Chocolate, I am happy to say, lives up to its billing in every way.
The story begins with a stand-off between two rival drug gangs in an un-named Thai city. A dispute over drug distribution has guns pointed at the heads of Zin (Ammara Siripong) and Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). Zin is the girlfriend and associate of the local Thai mob boss. Masashi is a Japanese gangster. The stand off is resolved with Masashi agreeing to withdraw from dealing locally. After the meet the two principles embark on an affair resulting in both of them being banished by the mob boss. Masashi returns to Japan and Zin finding herself pregnant is forced to leave everything including money owed to her to start a new life. She moves into a small apartment next to a martial arts school where she starts to raise her child. In the following years Zin finds that her daughter, Zen (Jeeja Yanin), has been diagnosed as Autistic. Blessed with swift reflexes, Zen is fascinated by the martial arts on display next door and the old films shown on television. Soon she is practicing and developing her fighting technique. It is the only time she is active, the rest of the time is spent alone in her mind. Due to her condition she relies heavily on the support of her mother and her friend Moom.
When her mother is diagnosed with cancer and is is in need of hospital care and expensive medecines the question of where the money to pay off the medical bills arises. Searching through Zen’s belongings Moom finds a ledger detailing all the outstanding monies owed to Zin. Moom hatches a plan to go to each of the people listed and get the money owed. Zen insists on going along to get the ‘Mum money’.
The first person on the list is a man who runs an ice making company. Naturally he is reluctant to settle any debt after such a long time and especially from a request from a couple of children. He enlists some of his guys to deal with the kids. While getting roughed up Zen snaps and using her years of training starts to fight back. After dealing with the heavies and the boss, Moom and Zen move on to the next name in the Ledger.
As with most martial arts film it is the tale of the hero’s journey. What marks this film out is the central character of Zen. Having a lead character with a developmental disability like Autism is unusual and potentially controversial for any film never mind an action film. What makes it work is that the disability does not define the character. Her drive and determination are what drives the film forward. The performance from JeeJa Yanin is superb. She manages to convey the plight and the problems faced by a young girl isolated from everyone very naturally. The other main characters are also on good form. Some with limited screen time still give interesting and memorable performances.
The main focus of course are the fight scenes. A martial arts film lives or dies by these. In Chocolate the fight scenes are excellent. JeeJa Yanin is of course the centre of attention. She is a skilled and energetic martial arts performer. The choreography in every fight scene is intricate and very well thought out. The locations for each fight are well-chosen to provide the maximum variety of moves and stunts. Some of the scenes are long but they never get stale. There is always something exciting on the screen to keep you entertained.
Comic relief and a not unwelcome distraction is provided by the character of Moom (Taphon Phopwandee). He has no special fighting skills and spends the scenes either hiding or throwing whatever comes to hand including ice, boxes and pigs heads.
The start of the film is a little confused and only really makes sense after a couple of viewings. After this the films moves at a swift pace making the ninety minute run time seem very short. Always a good sign in my book.
Overall a highly entertaining film with excellent martial arts sequences and an interesting central character. Recommended.