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Even though something is clearly happening in Thailand with regards to movies, the real sustained breakout has yet to happen. In the span of 5 years between 2000 and 2005, there have been perhaps a dozen really good movies coming out of that country. For example, Nang Nak (2000), Iron Ladies (2000), The Legend Of Suriyothai (2001), The Eye (2002), Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior (2003), My Girl (2003), Beautiful Boxer (2003), Citizen Dog (2004) and Born To Fight (2004) . Since 2005 however, for some reason, nothing much happened. I am not sure why that is, and the rise of Thai cinema i wanted so much to see never really took place. There is definitely talent there, and some great stories, and also, some great new action styles, so the breakout may just be around the corner.
Speaking of Action... Popularized by Tony Jaa with his breakthrough, and breakneck, hit Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior (2003), the Muay Thai style of fighting introduced audiences worldwide to a little known martial art that provided room for a new type of choreography and moves that were quite unfamiliar to traditional martial arts fans. Combined with incredible stunt work and the incredible physical presence of Tony, Ong-Bak was a low-budget cult landmark in action films that made this new brand of action look really fresh and innovative. I was really expecting the studios to start a deluge of copycat films to wring as much commercial potential as possible from this new trend, but again, the Thai cinema world seemed to have stopped after 2004.
Well, maybe the wait was worth it? With Chocolate (2008), i can certainly say that i haven't enjoyed a piece of action martial arts so much in a long while... Along with the Hong-Kong neo-classic SPL: Saat Po Long (2005), Chocolate is simply one of the best display of raw martial art choreography and tight stunt work around. The 3-part 20mn-long epic fight at the end of the film is in particular fantastic: you will hold your breath more than once. Of course, this is only a grand finale to a film that already contained several memorable action set pieces.
The main character is a young autistic girl (JeeJa Yanin) who grew up next door to a Muay thai school. Since she was a little girl, she trained and trained, learning at a distance from the masters at the school. The combination of her autism which gives her some interesting skills, and her training makes her a deadly machine that nothing is able to stop. The Autism part is interesting in that the story evolves her character as effectively an idiot-savant of Martial Arts. When her mother is tracked and kidnapped by an old "friend", a nasty gangster, the girl lashes out in a last ditch effort to save her mother. The girl is a chocolate junkie, thus the movie's title.
This movie won't win any Oscar for its story or writing, but there was some real effort here and i must say that the story is much more developed than in other Thai actioners i have seen. There are some memorable characters (shemale hitmen anybody? Or is that hitwomen?), and the film flows pretty well. But the main attractions are of course the action, and the main star, JeeJa Yanin. She is very cute, Thai, and a master Taekwondo and Muay Thai practitioner. And she can kick the hell out of anyone standing in her way. Is she the new Michelle Yeoh? Only time will tell. In any case, she is very impressive in her debut film and holds great promise. She is fast, agile, strong and gracious. The choreography is very inventive with many moves i had never seen before and situations that showcase in very innovative ways the wonders of the human body. For those unfamiliar with Muay Thai, the use of knees and elbows as part of the fighting style is at the source for new choreographies. Of course, seeing a cute girl plow through dozens of gangsters in a semi-plausible way (this is no Kill Bill) is also a source of pleasure for any fan of action/exploitation films.
Technically, the film is also a cut above previous Thai action fare. The cinematography and overall art direction are actually good. The film does not look cheap. The editing is incredible during the action scenes creating jarring effects while simultaneously conveying the seamlessness of long takes. I believe this film is a new action classic, and it should surely please any action fan looking for something new and innovative. Good production value, a great lead and an decent story combine to make this very enjoyable.
- Laurent Hasson