So Chocolate is not Chocolat, the 2000 Johnny Depp/Juliet Binoche movie where people eat chocolate from a particular shop and it somehow makes them fall in love with each other. Chocolat is the sort of movie where you know it takes place in France because people speak English in French accents. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite nobody ever liking it. (Miramax backed it.) It sucks. This column isn't about that. Don't worry. I wouldn't do that to you.
No, Chocolate is something else: namely, a movie about an autistic Thai girl with an unearthly ability to kick people. It has some of the greatest fight scenes that anyone has made in the past decade, and I don't know why it's called what it's called. That's the one you should watch.
Actually, in the non-kicking scenes, this is a pretty terrible movie, too. Chocolate is a sincere attempt at a disabled-person action movie, and it comes with an epigram dedicating it to special-needs kids. It's a movie with its heart in the right place. But if you watch enough Asian martial-arts flicks, you've probably learned to tune out the melodrama. Tons of otherwise-classic specimens have way-too-broad plots about cackling gangsters trapping orphans in basements with ticking bombs, or they have little kids who spend all their screen time crying and have to be constantly rescued. You learn to ignore it, because the movies have such incredible action. But Chocolate makes that process really hard.
In fact, the plot here is so broad and shrill and maudlin that it can be hard to force yourself to watch the scenes in between fights. It's not just a story about a girl with autism—it's a story about a girl with autism whose mother has cancer, whose street-urchin friend always gets in scrapes, and whose Japanese gangster father has been chased out of Thailand by her mother's Thai gangster associates. Before the girl is even born, we get a whole Romeo-and-Juliet plotline about her parents coming from opposite ends of a gang war, and you already know, immediately, that the movie is going to end with at least one parent dead. Every character in the movie is either woodenly virtuous or Snidely Whiplash-level evil. Oh, and also: The main girl is deathly afraid of bugs, and she screeches horribly every time she's around one. Some producer should've really sat the screenwriter down and had a long talk about the whole bug-scream character trait. There's even a wack-as-fuck animated dream sequence, and not even Chocolat has anything quite that lame.
On the face of it, then, a movie about an autistic kid trying to raise money for her mom's cancer medication, told in the most hackneyed manner possible, should not be worth your time any more than Chocolat is. But Zen, the movie's girl is—fortunately, for her and for us—also blessed with Daredevil-level superhuman reflexes and an unearthly ability to stomp the shit out of vast crowds of street toughs. Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew is the party responsible, and, in a great self-referential touch, Zen teaches herself to fight by watching Ong-Bak over and over, rewinding the fight scenes. Rewinding the fight scenes is the only way to watch Ong-Bak, and it's also the only way to watch Chocolate.
Jeeja Yanin, the martial artist who plays Zen, was about 24 when this was released, but she looks maybe 12 in the movie. Even compared to floppy-haired Ong-Bak star Tony Jaa, she doesn't cut an intimidating figure, but she's perfect for the role, keeping an amazing blankness on her face even mid-fight and wasting no motion with her kicks. As Zen, she plays a fighter who never really gets mad and looks at fights like math problems, seeing angles that the doofuses she's ripping through can't figure out. Theoretically, she shouldn't pose a problem for any of the much-larger dudes she destroys, but she's existing on a different level from them. And the movie does her character work justice by putting her in a heightened dreamworld where nothing makes sense. Halfway in, when the transgender-hitwoman gang shows up, it's pretty obvious that the movie is done trying to portray anything like our reality.
With its fights, Chocolate does that great Jackie Chan thing, throwing its heroes into settings where Zen can figure out different ways to stomp ass. She fights anonymous goons in a warehouse full of boxes and shelves, in an abandoned restaurant, and in a slaughterhouse where the bugs are more of a problem for her than the cleaver-wielding henchmen. She's fighting in all these random spaces because she found her loan-shark mother's ledger, figuring out that these people all owe her mother money. It doesn't bother her that her mother was actually a bad guy when these arrangements were set up. She's just going to kick everyone she needs to kick until she can walk out with that money. There's an appealing purity to it. And it all reaches an absurd peak when she goes head-to-head with another disabled fighter: a disabled breakdancing capoeira master whose erratic tics she has to figure out. That scene doesn't need the rest of the movie to work. It rules on its own. Here, look:
It all builds to a long, amazing sequence where Zen chases the movie's main villain, a sadistic gang boss with incredible Todd Rundgren hair, across an outdoor landscape of signs and ledges. It's structured like a difficult and frustrating video-game level, with all these thugs jumping out and leaping at Zen from every angle, then getting knocked a few floors down to the ground. The scene's geometry is impossibly complex, and yet its appeal is simple and visceral. Zen fucks these guys up, and we see stuntmen smashing five obstacles on the way down and then hitting the ground hard, all in one shot. Chocolate could never be made in America, because no lawsuit-fearing American studio would treat its stuntmen like that. It's a total masterpiece of a fight scene, a classic worth a million bug-screams.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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