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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008)

Taking the timeless cultural meme of the wordless martial arts protagonist to its logical conclusion, CHOCOLATE is a Thai kickboxing film centring around Zen, the daughter of a crime boss and a gang enforcer.

Zen is autistic, withdrawn and as luck would have it gifted with incredible senses of hearing and spacial awareness. Growing up living opposite a Muay Thai training school, when her mother becomes ill she and her brother decide to try and call in some of mum's past gangland debts to pay for her medicine.

CHOCOLATE is somewhat postmodern as far as martial arts movies go. At several points, clips of ONG BAK appear on television, while Zen's first fight sees her whooping and wailing a la Bruce Lee and the credits even have a Jackie Chan-esque outtake reel running behind them. It wears its influences on its torn and tattered sleeve.

But it's still a martial arts movie through and through. The main character and sidekick run into a series of elaborate brawls in acrobatically-encouraging locations, including an ice factory, a warehouse and a slaughterhouse. and soon skulls and chests are cracking away merrily at the knees and elbows of our special needs action star.

What's refreshing about CHOCOLATE is its slightly off-key feel; its kooky, but strangely sensitive handling of autism and its wry sense of humour, plus a refreshing awareness of its own inherent ridiculousness. At one point Zen faces off against the bad guys' secret weapon - an EPILEPTIC CAPOEIRA FIGHTER. It's easily the film's high point, and it's almost a shame he isn't followed up by a karate-fighting obsessive-compulsive or attention-deficit disorder sumo wrestler.

It's well-directed, it's pretty and it zips along nicely at an optimum ninety minutes in length. Although the stunts aren't quite as epic, nor the fighting as varied as the Tony Jaa films it draws heavily upon, it makes up for it with a stronger story and more interesting characters and settings. And Zen is easily the best female martial arts protagonist since Fong Sai Yuk's mum.

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