Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chocolate (2008)

Thai producer
Prachya Pinkaew's Ong Bak and semi-remake Tom Yum Goong were a huge breath of fresh air for kung fu cinema in the last 5 years: while Jackie Chan continues to produce pockets of brilliance, Jet Li focussed on wire work and wuxia, which to me is a massive waste of his talents, with only Fearless getting back to his wushu roots. Prachya Pinkaew's near-suicidal stunt team have built a reputation for gleefully hurling themselves into real danger: few kicks or punches are pulled, and the scenery becomes a part of the action again in a way not seen since Jackie Chan's heyday. The brilliant (if uncharasmatic) Tony Jaa was the first star to emerge from this formula, with brutal Muay Thai techniques showcasing more unusual kicks (especially knee strikes) and elbows. The plots to his movies are paper-thin (baddies steal something, Tony gets it back), so it's good to see that with Chocolate the formula has been extended to something more complex, and with a different debutante: 22-year old female JeeYa Janin.

The plot: An ex-mob mother is ostracised due to her love of a rival yakuza. He returns to Japan, leaving her to care for their autistic daughter (Zin) who is brought up in a Muay Thai training school. When mother falls ill , Zin and her tubby chum discover an accounts book of people that owe her mother money - they do not realise this a loan shark book from her mob days. Zin has copied the Muay Thai techniques from the school, and avidly consumes Tony Jaa's movies and violent Playstation games.

And so cue a series of fights with the debtors - all of which are set in different factories: ice, packing, meat. Finally the old boss and his transvestite(!) gang get wind of this and we end with two showdowns: one involving the returned Yakuza dad in a restaurant, and then spilling out to the city for the final showdown.

And she's called Chocolate because she collects M&M's.

Treatment: Now, this has caused quite a split among the Kung Fu forums. As mentioned, Jin is autistic (apologies if this is a genaralisation) and her mother is struck with (presumably) leukemia. In my opinion both conditions are treated respectfully, and (as far as I can see) realistically. Zin's mood swings and perception of the world are well realised. Of course, this doesn't have the depth of, say, "The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night" or "Rain Man", but its both good enough for this context and touching in its own right. The point that she could not possibly be such a good fighter without formal training is, well, pointless: Ong Bak and Tom Yun Goong are equally ludicrous but just as exciting.

Fights: Again, controversial: some believe these to be slickly edited to make JeeYa Janin look better, and that she is merely flexible/acrobatic with no real technique. I completely disagree, I've tried some of the kicking combos she pulls off and have got nowhere close. The combos are varied and imaginative, making very good use of kicks/elbows/ad-hoc weapons as well as the scenery. The stunts are superb; especially in the end fight on the side of a building (Harold Lloyd would be proud). Only let down is the swordplay sequence, which is just as weak as the one in Kill Bill.

The outtakes show several meaty smacks in the face, the stunt team really earned their keep.

Overall: 4.5.out of 5, another modern day classic from Thailand with plenty of action, and nice to see that plot complexity is improving.

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