Saturday, September 8, 2012

Chocolate

I'd had Chocolate in my Netflix Instant Queue for a good long while, collecting dust.  Well, virtual dust, anyway; that's like real dust, only with less dead skin and insect poop, and probably more memes.  I like the occasional martial arts movie and this was directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who has handled the two best Tony Jaa movies, but I was just never in the mood for what appeared to be a kung-fu chick flick.  And then I read this article from Cracked.com.  While I have loved Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricki and The Crippled Masters for years, I had no idea that Chocolate was such a conceptual gold mine!  I mean, really --- mental retardation as a martial art skill?  What's not to love?  I mean, aside from a fundamental (and probably intentional) misunderstanding about mental handicaps and their repercussions.

Chocolate is, as the title implies, the story of a sweet piece that gives people pleasure when they pop it in their mouth.
On an unrelated note, image searches for this film rank this picture pretty highly
Actually, Chocolate is the story of Zen (JeeJa Yanin), who is not to be confused with an Intergalactic Ninja who starred in his own NES/GBA game and comic book.  Zen is the result of a star-crossed romance worthy of Shakespeare (or the corresponding Thai knock-off).  When her mother, a Thai gang enforcer/gangster moll named Zin (Ammara Siripong), fell in love with Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), a Japanese Yakuza boss, she knew that their romance couldn't last.
Much like the allure of her huge gang tattoo
Zin's criminal boss, Number 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong), is incredibly jealous and very territorial.  While I'm not 100% sure that Zin was his girlfriend, Number 8 makes it clear that he will not stand for their love.  To give them an idea of how crazy he is, Number 8 shoots his own toe off his foot; I guess the idea was something along the lines of "If I am willing to this to myself, imagine the toes I will shoot off you!"  After breaking up with Masashi, Zin quits her gangster ways and devotes herself to raising her Thai-Japanese love child, Zen.  The girl turns out to be rather "special," though.  I would say that Zen's behavior puts her on the autism spectrum, but that's selling this plot short; Zen exhibits a variety of mental illness symptoms, until they become a hindrance to an action scene, at which point they are generally ignored.  So, yes, I am aware that autism is different than mental disability/retardation/illness, but nobody told the writers of this movie.  Zen grows up, gains a best friend/creepy kid that is always hanging around her, named Mang Moom...
"Would it be less creepy if I told you I was manipulating her?"
...and the audience sees what makes Zen so special.  Thanks to Zen's mental disability, she can learn anything, as long as she's seen it done before.  Riding a bike?  Easy.  Kung-fu practice?  Done.  Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee moves?  Hmm...I wonder if that talent will come into play here?  That might not make an ounce of sense in the real world, but apparently this movie takes place in a universe where autism gives you high-end martial arts abilities.  Anyways, Zin is sick.  It's probably cancer, and she doesn't have the money to pay for treatment.  Mang Moom finds an old memo book of Zin's, which shows a list of people who owe her money.  Of course, Moom knows that no tough gangster-type person is going to willingly hand money off to a pudgy kid that really ought to be in school.  That's why he brings along Zen.  It's kind of like bringing a knife to a gun fight, but if you replaced "knife" with "handicapped girl" and "gun fight" with "any fight, whatsoever."  Oddly enough, it worked.
She brought a kick to the face to a jumping contest
Zen was able to kick some ass and take home money for her mom.  Meanwhile, Number 8 and Masashi both noticed Zen's success, and each takes steps to finish her quest, one way or the other.

In my mind, any discussion of the acting and direction of Chocolate is missing the point.  This is a movie about a mentally handicapped girl who --- as a direct result of being mentally handicapped --- became a master of the martial arts.  It's essentially Rookie of the Year, only with "baseball" and "arm injury" being replaced by "kung fu" and "developmental disability."  Let me put it another way: are you the sort of person who can laugh at The Crippled Masters?  Or perhaps your favorite episode of South Park is the "Cripple Fight" episode?

If that's the case, then you will definitely enjoy Chocolate.  In fact, you should rent it the next time you need to make a Schlitz run.  If, on the other hand, you think laughing at autism will give you a "Go Directly to Hell" card, then you might not want to take a pass.
Hell is for children...to kick your ass

If you can get beyond the basic idiocy/brilliance of the core concept of Chocolate, though, there are several points of interest.  First and foremost, JeeJa Yanin is pretty damn impressive in the film's action scenes.  The primary fight style is inspired by Muay Thai; if you can imagine a young girl kneeing people in the face, then you've got a decent idea of the action in the movie.  Thanks to Zen's ability to mimic anything she sees, though, there are moments where the fighting style shifts noticeably. 
This scene was obviously inspired by Bruce Lee.  No joke.
That's a pretty cool way to change things up.  It helps that Yanin is also a very small girl, so her acrobatics also added some unusual spice to this genre flick.

The villains are also pretty entertaining.  While I would hesitate to call any acting in the film "good," the bad guys were consistently nonsensical and over the top.  Number 8 was the main baddie, but he wasn't all that weird.  His transvestite second-in-command, though, was hilariously ugly.  I would post a picture of him/her, but doing a Google image search for "chocolate movie transvestite" proved to be rather unpleasant.  My favorite bad guys were the mini-bosses.  The basic setup for any scene has Zen going to a group of meat/fish/pig/box packers and demanding the money owed to her mom, the bad guys laugh and refuse, and Zen kicks all their asses.  One of the guys holding the money flat-out dared Zen to take the money from him; when she beats the shit out of everyone in the warehouse, the same guy whines about her overreacting.  I had to pause the movie there until I was finished laughing.

Another thing Chocolate does well is introducing unintentionally funny conceptual moments.  This doesn't include the core concept of kung-fu-autism, mind you.  Let's take Zen's buddy, Mang Moom, as an example.  I can ignore the logic of treating Zen as a street performer whose talent is to catch what you throw at her.  I can ignore the shock of seeing his character (remember, he's a child) on the receiving end of a gunshot wound.  Both of those are kind of unintentionally funny.  Or terrible.  Whatever.  What was fantastic about his character, though, is when he is offered candy by the evil killer transvestite and is specifically told to give it to Zen --- and he does!  Even better, the candy is poisoned!  There is just so much gold in that simple idea, I just don't know what to do with it all!  First and foremost, giving a fat kid chocolate candy and expecting him not to eat it, especially if nobody else knows about it, is a pretty terrible start to any evil plan.  But what kid takes candy from a stranger...and saves it for someone else?!?  It's not like Zen would have known anything was missing, because she's shown as nearly oblivious to everything.  Also, if you're a creepy killer trannie, you might want to have a middle man offer the kid the candy in the first place; kids are stupid, but even they keep their distance from obviously creepy folk.  Unless, of course, they happen to be named Mang Moom.
Please tell me she's practicing this move for Moom

Prachya Pinkaew did a decent job balancing the action and story in Chocolate.  There are rarely stretches without action of some kind, and I think that is the best way to make a movie like this.  The action choreography was varied and impressive, but it wasn't fantastic.  Beautiful?  Yes.  Worth rewinding immediately after seeing?  Not so much.  The problem isn't with JeeJa Yanin, who looked about as tough as a teenage Asian girl can look.  The scenes were just not gory.  This is a martial arts movie where the main hero fails to kill most of her foes.  They're using all sorts of weapons, but she just beats them down and then makes the rounds to make sure nobody is getting back up.  In theory, there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it might have been downright unsettling to see Yanin massacring people on the big screen.  And yet the lack of awesome (or any) finishing moves undermines one of the main pleasures found in martial arts movies.

Don't get me wrong, this can be an entertaining movie, as evidenced by the above clip.  The action is pretty cool and there is the added bonus of another mentally-handicapped-but-violently-blessed character to add another layer to Chocolate's ridiculousness.  It's fun and totally worth watching, but it's not bad-ass and it's not a classic.  Unless, as I've pointed out before, you're going to Hell and you want to laugh on your way down.  As a legit film, Chocolate deserves...
 But if you're in the mood to laugh at a modern martial arts movie that actually has solid action, this deserves a Lefty Gold rating of...

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