Prachya Pinkaew has already unleashed one shiny new martial arts legend into the world in the shape of Tony Jaa with his previous movies, Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong. But apparently creating one new high-kicking superstar wasn’t enough, because Chocolate introduces another will-be-legendary-soon fighter: JeeJa Yanin. She’s awesome beyond words. As well she should be, since she’s been practicing taekwando since she was 11, and spent four years training in Muay Thai for her role in Chocolate.
The press materials for the movie are desperate to tag JeeJa as “the female Tony Jaa”, but that’s kind of unfair. She’s just amazing; comparisons between the two fighters are kind of pointless. (Although part of me would love to see the two of them face off…). Plus, constantly harping on about how the lead in Chocolate is female is to do the movie itself a disservice – it doesn’t play up JeeJa’s gender as a novelty. What’s actually a lot more important to the plot is that her character, Zen, is autistic.
See, Zen’s mother, Sin, used to be involved with a mafia-type clan, until her romance with Masashi, a Japanese Yakuza, saw her sent into exile. The lovers are separated and Sin is left to bring up Zen alone. Forced to move around frequently in order to stay out of the gangsters’ grasp, Zen and Sin end up living next door to a Muay Thai academy. By watching the students (and some Tony Jaa films on TV) Zen teaches herself to fight; a skill she’ll need when Sin is diagnosed with cancer and needs expensive medical treatment. Zen’s friend Mangmoom devises several money-making schemes using Zen’s abilities, but then discovers a book that lists debts owed to Sin, and sets out to collect them. Only, of course, no-one really wants to pay up, meaning Zen has to kick some ass to collect the dosh.
The middle section of the film might seem a bit repetitive – Zen and Mangmoom visit a debtor, are refused, and have to beat up gangs of henchmen to collect money – if the set designs weren’t so endlessly interesting. Each setting offers new obstacles and new makeshift weapons for Zen, as well as often offering multi-levelled battlegrounds.
Zen never fights to kill, interestingly; when a fighter comes at her with a deadly weapon, she usually sidesteps, or uses his own momentum against him. There’s an awesome fight near the end where dozens and dozens of fighters come at her with swords, and Zen picks up the sheaths to fight them off. She’s astoundingly fast; the fight scenes are amazing to watch. She’s so graceful and yet powerful – and, like with Prachya Pinkaew’s other movies, the fights are all real. It’s easy to become desensitised to movie violence because we “know” that it’s all fake – but the outtakes shown during the end-credits of Chocolate reveal that there was actually a lot of very real violence involved in the making of this movie. (The best part is when the filmmakers go to visit a stuntman in hospital, and he’s practically bandaged from head to toe after a stunt involving falling from a rooftop went wrong. Ouch.)
What also sets Prachya Pinkaew’s movies apart from other martial arts flicks is how seriously he seems to take them; how sincere he is about every aspect of the film. With Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, he set out to prove that Thai movies could rival Hollywood’s efforts, and to showcase Thai culture in various ways. With Chocolate, he’s proving that not only can a woman be as kickass a fighter as a man, but that she doesn’t need to be overly sexualised to carry a movie either; her gender is never an issue, and there’s never sexual violence used or threatened against her.
Zen’s autism is also handled sensitively – JeeJa studied autistic children extensively in order to learn their mannerisms, to make her performance as realistic as possible. Zen’s autism, like her gender, isn’t used as a joke or a novelty or a hook – it’s just part of who she is. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask of a movie to write characters like this – to write a woman who’s not just a sex object, or to use non-neurotypical characters as something other than a joke – but it feels like it’s rare, too rare, to find a movie like this. The world needs more Prachya Pinkaew movies – or, hell, more directors like Prachya Pinkaew. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that’s reminded me why I fell in love with filmmaking in the first place, but this film has definitely done that. It’s brilliant. Do whatever it takes to see this.
Chocolate is released on November 3rd.