The 2003 release of Ong Bak seemed to signal the emergence of Thailand as the new hot-spot to watch for martial arts cinema. That film's grounded athleticism was a thrilling alternative to the stylized wuxia "wire-fu" movies that have dominated Hong Kong action cinema for the last several years. Yet since that time, at least here in the West, it has seemed like Thai martial arts films have largely been a one-man show. While there have been a handful of other films that have received Western releases, noone has arisen to stand alongside Tony Jaa as a breakout star. Chocolate, however, makes a good case for Yanin Vismitananda as being the next Thai fighter with the potential to become a genuine phenomenon.
Let's get one thing out of the way, before we get to the good stuff. The plot and screenplay for Chocolate are bad. Like cause you to thrown open all the windows to let out the stink, bad. I'm not suggesting that martial arts films need complicated plotting or thematic sophistication -- far from it. But even judging by the standards of the genre, this one's barely tolerable.
Chocolate is so stuffed with melodrama (so rank it would make Mary Pickford blush) that it practically chokes on its own sentimentality. Try this plot description on for size: an overweight young man tries to help his mentally challenged best friend collect money to pay for her mom's cancer treatments. Their journey brings them into the world of her estranged father, who just may learn that the true meaning of life is love. Yeah, it's really that bad. Worse, director Prachya Pinkaew was apparently afraid that the audience might miss out on the heart-wrenching sadness of the premise if he ever treated it with the least subtlety. Pinkaew simply never met a story beat he didn't think could be enhanced with a sappy montage.
But, (and this is as big a "but" as they come) when the credits roll you won't be thinking about the story, as bad as it is. Yanin Vismitananda is simply one of the most electric and exciting martial artists working in film today. She plays Zen, an autistic savant who grew up next to a Muay Thai kickboxing academy and was obsessed with aping the moves she saw the men practicing. She's an incredibly nimble and agile fighter, integrating leaps, headstands and floor-work into an unbelievably acrobatic routine.
While the first half hour is long and slow thanks to its focus on setting up the movie's absurd plot, once the fighting begins Pinkaew moves the film deftly from set-piece to set-piece, much to the movie's advantage. The premise of Zen and her friend finding a list of her mother's old gangland contacts that still owed her money is a practical one, as it provides the basic structure to send Zen quickly from one fight to the next with a minimum of set-up in between. The settings for the fights seemed to be chosen like video-game levels; as she moves from icehouse to butcher shop to sushi bar, each seems to have been selected to provide not only a different background for the fights, but a different set of props and environmental obstacles for her to work with.
Most exciting of all is a thrilling sequence set three stories above street level. Zen and her opponents leap from sign to sign, ledge to ledge along a commercial alleyway next to an elevated train track. The Jackie Chan-style outtakes sequence during the credits makes it clear that the only special effects in this sequence is the digital removal of the safety wires the performers wear, and the authenticity of the stunts make the scene one of the most exciting fights I've seen recently.
If you require a compelling plot to keep you interested in a film, stay away. But then if that's a necessary component for you to enjoy a film you're probably not interested in martial arts films in the first place. For those that are, Chocolate is an essential and exciting introduction to a major new talent.