What is it about catfights that make men go crazy? Is it watching tough, aggressive and capable women fight like men? Perhaps it's the intense ferocity that women tend to display when fighting that seems ever so erotic. It goes against what we've been taught in society: that women are the fairer sex - soft and sweet. Watching women fight seems so wrong and yet we watch with voyeuristic glee.
While the 60s and 70s have brought us "woman warriors" in the forms of Emma Peel (Avengers) and female hero-centered TV shows and films such as Faster Pussycat Kill Kill Kill, Charlie's Angels, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, My Young Auntie, Deadly Angels and Foxy Brown it wasn't until the 80s that the genre really took off. Hong Kong films like Angel (a.k.a. Iron Angels, She Shoots Straight, and Yes, Madam! displayed the full fury of a woman scorned and it soon formed the basis of what HK cinema fans now happily call the "girls and guns" genre.
It wouldn't take long for American cinema to catch onto the trend with its own strong female heroines in movies such as Aliens and Terminator 2. Recently, there have been a slew of pictures that have played upon this fascination such as Kill Bill Vol. 1,Death Proof, The Descent, D.O.A. and So Close to name a few. The newest Thai action film Chocolate is but another film to exploit the "girl power" theme and it is an enjoyable if flawed one.
Zen (Yanin Vismitananda a.k.a. Jeeja Yanin) is an autistic teenage girl born of the affair between Masashi (the wonderfully charismatic Abe Hiroshi in a cameo), a high-ranking Japanese Yakuza member, and Zin (Ammara Siripong), a Thai call-girl. A Thai mob boss simply called "No. 8" (played with sheer nastiness by Pongpat Wachirabunjong) doesn't take kindly to the Yakuza muscling in on his turf and threatens Zin. Masashi and Zin narrowly escape but Masashi is forced to flee Thailand leaving Zin to raise their child alone.
Zen's autism leaves her emotionally and mentally stunted, detached and distant but she displays an uncanny ability to memorize and mimic complex physical movements she sees. Her reflexes are also so lightning fast she is able to catch apples and other objects thrown at her in mid-flight. Zen's photographic memory allows her to copy whatever martial arts moves she sees and she quickly learns Thai kick-boxing simply by observing the boxers near her apartment train. She also picks up a lot of moves by watching TV (coincidently one of the movies she watches is Ong Bak). This ability doesn't go unnoticed and childhood friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) decides to market these skills on the streets for quick money.
Zin's past however catches up with her as No. 8 decides to pay her back for his indignation (he cuts off one of her toes) and threatens to kill Zen. Zin's troubles are further complicated when she learns that she also has cancer and needs money for the medication and the treatments needed to suppress its effects. Wanting to help, Moom and Zen decide to collect upon some of the old debts that Zin is owed by a number of her former clients.
These guys turn out to be your typical movie scumbags and Zen's aggressive side soon comes to the surface, causing her to literally "go ballistic" and in a number of well choreographed fight sequences she makes short work of them and their armies of henchmen. No. 8 soon learns about these incidents and wants in on that money. Sending his cross-gendered henchman/woman "Priscilla" (Sirimongkol Iamthuam) to Kidnap Zin and Moom, Zen is forced to team-up with her estranged father (who has returned to Thailand) to save them.
Chocolate (the title comes from Zen's favorite vice) is a crowd pleasing spectacle of violence that is a follow up to director Prachya Pinkaew's surprising international hits Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, which introduced action fans to the sensational Thai fighting machine Tony Jaa. Pinkaew's newest find this time is petite, 23-year-old taekwondo phenom Yanin Vismitananda (a.k.a. JeeJa Yanin), who is also accomplished in gymnastics and Thai Boxing. Cute-as-a-button and lithe in frame, she is reminiscent of other martial arts angels such as Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh and particularly Oshima Yukari.
While the film's main strength lies in its visual mayhem of flying fists and swift kicks, the film suffers mostly in its quieter moments. JeeJa has little to do when not kicking ass and her fairly limited acting skills are not helped by Chukiat Sakveerakul and Nepalee Sakweerakul's screenplay, which seems like a cross between Rainman and Zatoichi with Kill Bill thrown in for good measure. However, Chocolate lacks the emotional impact of any of those other films.
Prachya Pinkaew pays tribute to quite a few other martial arts films in Chocolate. There are scenes reminiscent from Bruce Lee's Big Boss, Fists of Fury and Game of Death as well as films like Sin City. There is even a short animation dream sequence similar to Kill Bill Vol. 1. Though the trailer suggests otherwise, Zen's fighting style tends to suggest less the raw aggressiveness of Bruce Lee and more the acrobatic, swiftness of Jackie Chan.
The film does enter the realm of absurdity at times such as when Zen battles various opponents on building billboards and rooftops. The villains also border on the comically bizarre. Aside from the oddly named "No. 8" and the gender confused Priscilla, we also get a mad biker with his muscle-bound molls and a bespectacled young assassin who seems to be inspired by Elijah Wood's Kevin from Sin City, complete with facial ticks and quirky fighting style. He even wears a negative version of Bruce Lee's famous tracksuit (wearing a black and white one).
Yet with all the neat visuals, awesome fight choreography, and dark overtones, the movie seems soulless and empty. We should care for these characters and their plights but instead all we care for is the next amazing fight sequence and for Zen to go crazy. "Chocolate" is certainly a guilty pleasure for those with indiscriminate tastes and who like their Thai action hard, fast and brutal. Yet, just like the schoolyard cat-fight it ends far too quickly and once the fight is over one can only feel a bit shameful for enjoying the spectacle.
I do hope that we get to see more of the young star JeeJa as she does have a unique screen presence. While not on par with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or fellow Thai Tony Jaa, she certainly can capture our attention and she definitely deserves better opportunities to showcase her incredible talents. Now if only she can get the acting down. (JMaruyama 2008)