Monday, August 17, 2009

Chocolate not as rich as it sounds

directed by Pratya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2008, 90 minutes

You know, I've only seen one great Thai film (Last Life in the Universe) and one pretty good one (Tears of the Black Tiger) - and yes, I know, the arthouse darlings rave about Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes of a Century), but I find his non-narrative films boring and self-indulgent. My attitude remains unchanged after seeing Chocolate. Chocolate is less a movie than a series of extended fight scenes loosely connected by a hokey Lifetime Channel storyline about feuding gangsters, an autistic child who learns martial arts by watching kung-fu movies, and a mom with cancer.

Martial arts helmer Pratya Pinkaew is best known for Ong-Bak (2003) and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector, 2005), both of which starred Muay Thai fighter extraordinaire Tony Jaa. But Pinkaew had a falling out with Tony Jaa and decided to find a new martial artist to hitch his wagon to, this time with a twist: a woman. Taekwando specialist Jeeja Yanin (Yanin Visitnandra) is his new discovery...

Jeeja strikes a Bruce Lee pose

... and while she trained for two years to master her Muay Thai/kickboxing skills and it looks like she does her own stunts (the out-takes at the end of the movie show lots of "accidents" on set), the director uses sped-up footage and wires to cover some of the fights just in case.

If you accept it for what it is, a stunt reel of four big "one-against-many fight" scenes (including an homage to Bruce Lee's ice factory brawl in Fists of Fury and the Crazy88s' scene from Tarantino's Kill Bill 1), Chocolate is worth a look. (See highlights below.)

This is the same attitude one must have when viewing porn with it's minimalist narrative structure that cuts right to the chase (e.g., Here's a pizza guy delivering an extra-sausage pie to a horny tart who doesn't have enough money to pay, and so let the no holes barred bartering commence for the next half hour).

But I was disappointed that as a "movie" Chocolate doesn't add up to the sum of its parts; if the martial arts films from Hong Kong in the '90s proved anything, it's that you could make a good "film" with action. But in Chocolate, characters pop up out of nowhere without explanation or identification. We see a Japanese yakuza (Hiroshi Abe) and a Thai moll (Ammara Siripong) make love, with the woman Zin giving birth to the autistic Zen (Jeeja Yanin); fair enough, but then Zen's brother shows up, with no explanation or backstory (who's his father? Not that it matters, but it's an annoying loose end). (And, typical of Southeast Asian mores, the sex scene is heavily edited, while graphic violence - including a toe-severng - is served up on a platter! It's as ridiculous as Bollywood movies in which onscreen kissing is still considered taboo, despite a rampant AIDS epidemic and one billion people providing irrefutable evidence that sex happens in India!)

And during the Crazy88s scene, which takes up nearly a third of the picture's running time, so many bodies are thrown at Jeeja/Zen that the director actually recycles his kickboxing fodder in scenes that defy belief as fighters that have had the stuffing kicked out of them come back - three or four times - for more. What's the point? (Filler? Padding the running time?)

"Get up you guys, let's do that again!"

Also during the Crazy88s dojo knock-down drag-out, we are introduced - out of the blue, natch - to a rival male autistic child (as pictured left) who's full of quirky David Byrne spastic head-jerks and shakes. This autistic fight scene was pretty cool, spazz-on-spazz action, but it was robbed of its thunder but having no dramatic build-up. Where was the backstory to give their duel some dramatic tension or meaning? Who is this kid? Does he even have a name? Is he too being exploited by the Thai gangsters? Or is he simply a cheap gimmick thrown in at the last minute for a few audience exclamations of "Wow!" Or "Preposterous!"

Anyway, check out the scene below that was the highlight of the movie for me. The boy looks like my friend Dave Cawley at one of those Reaction "Mod Night" parties having a heated discussion with a Thai girl over the relative merits of cilantro after having quaffed too many Gin and Tonics.

Dave Cawley vs. JeeJa

And by the way, where the hell did the title come from? What does "Chocolate" have to do with this film? The one scene where the little girl pops some M&Ms into her mouth?

Bottom plot, cartoonish characterizations, incongruous editing, and fight scenes that go on way too long, stretching the limits of any willing suspension of disbelief by light years. Mitigating factors: the dueling autistic duo fight gets bonus points for originality, there are lots of badass "Ladyboy" gangsters presented as nothing out of the ordinary, there are two toe trauma scenes (toes are both severed and bullet-riddled), and additional bonus points for the butcher shop fight scene that features JeeJa's brother Mang Moom wielding one of those bug zapper racquets to ward off the flies hovering around the meat (Thai restaurant health regulations look rather relaxed!) - pesky flies being the only thing that truly terrifies Zen.

Oh, apparently there's also a Chocolate manga, as shown below. Note the politically correct "autistic glee" cover (nice):

Reminds me of Jackie Gleason's sidekick Frank Fontaine making his "Crazy Guggenheim" face!

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