by Jason Coffman
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Tony Jaa’s domestic film debut Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior was unquestionably a breath of fresh air in the martial arts action film genre and an instant classic. Not unlike Jackie Chan’s first major US release (Rumble in the Bronx), Ong-Bak gave audiences something they had likely not seen before— or, at best, something of which they had only seen pale derivations. Jaa’s Muay Thai style of fighting was something totally new to audiences used to decades of similar martial arts films, and despite any of the film’s dramatic shortcomings (he beat up all those people for the head of a sacred statue in his village— does anyone remember that?), it remains memorable for its astonishing fight sequences and its weirdly cheerful tone.
Prachya Pinkaew, the director of Ong-Bak, went on to make another film with Jaa (The Protector) before taking up another project that sounded very intriguing— Chocolate. Basically Pinkaew has gone back to the drawing board and seemingly taken in a few canny influences, and the result is another instant classic not quite like anything we’ve seen before.
The film opens with a lengthy history leading up to our heroine’s birth: her father Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) falls in love with her mother Zin (Ammara Siripong) after a chance meeting that almost ends up killing them both. As it happens, he’s a yakuza and she’s an enforcer for a ruthless Thai gangster known as No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong, possibly channeling Takashi Miike). When No. 8 learns of their forbidden love, he warns Zin to never see Masashi again. Masashi reluctantly returns to Japan at Zin’s insistence and she raises their daughter Zen (JeeJa Yanin) alone.
However, Zen is not a normal girl. She is autistic, and requires a lot of special attention. After being attacked by No. 8 and his henchwoman(?) Priscilla (Dechawut Chuntakaro), Zin moves to a new apartment conveniently located next door to a Muay Thai boxing school. Over time, Zen learns boxing from watching the boys at the school as well as watching martial arts films— coincidentally, her favorites seem to be Ong-Bak and The Protector! Her chubby friend Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee) realizes a business opportunity when he throws a ball at Zen and she catches it without looking. He begins to take her out and lets people throw things at her for money, which sometimes gets them into trouble.
Their fun doesn’t last long, however, as soon Zin becomes gravely ill with some form of cancer. While desperately trying to figure out a way to pay for her medical bills, Moom stumbles upon a ledger that lists many unsavory types who happen to owe Zin money. Soon enough, Moom and Zen are on their way to collect, and once Zen realizes she can use her fighting skills to help her mom, they’re making waves that bring them back to the attention of No. 8. And no wonder— she tears through crowds of henchmen like Serenity’s River Tam on steroids.
The first half of the film is fairly slow, with more character development than expected for this type of film. The first real fight scene doesn’t appear until over half an hour has passed, but once the film gets up and running it’s amazing. Zin fights thugs in an ice factory, a candy warehouse, and a meat market, each one offering its own unique dangers and props to use in the beating of ass. The film’s finale, which is basically its entire third act, is an astonishing run through various fighting styles. One of the film’s taglines in Thailand as shown in the trailers on the DVD was “Real fights! Real injuries!” and footage runs under the credits of people getting injured doing different stunts throughout the film. Somewhat uncomfortably, the last stuntman shown seems to have broken his neck, and the last we see of him is everyone waving goodbye to him in the hospital. Yikes.
No doubt because of such dedication to the film, the final product is thrilling. Any fan of martial arts action will not be disappointed by Chocolate’s incredible stunts and unique fight choreography. I can’t wait to see what Pinkaew does next, but I hope no stuntmen have to go to the hospital for it. Well… not too many, anyway. It’s hard to argue with results like this!
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago
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