The one chocolate that most reminds me of this movie is a jaffa. Hard and crunchy on the outside, soft and melty on the inside.
Chocolate was Yanin “Jija” (or “Jeeja”) Vismitananda’s debut film role and director Prachya Pinkaew, the late Panna Rittikrai, and team created a movie designed to showcase her talents, much like they did for Tony Jaa with Ong Bak. A fairly basic story, acted out fairly basically, sets up a goal for our hero to achieve and puts a bunch of louts requiring a licking in the way.
Jija plays Zen, a girl with developmental challenges that are never named, but she displays traits like social aloofness and single-minded focus on certain details and repetitive actions — such as neatly arranging chocolates, watching martial arts movies and imitating the training of the martial arts practitioners next door.
She’s also a child of parents from opposing criminal gangs. Her father Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) long ago bailed back to Japan after gangland rivalry became too intense. Although the role has its creepy side, it’s always refreshing to see a non-villainous Japanese character in an Asian film from outside Japan. Zen is cared for by her mother Zin (Ammara Siriphong), and Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), a boy rescued from local bullies who is pretty much an adopted brother. When Zin falls sick and requires expensive hospital treatment, Moom handily happens across a list of people who owe her money. So Moom heads off with Zen in tow to ask for the debts to be repaid. Their requests are refused.
So it is that Zen finds herself lying on the floor of an ice factory at the feet of some goons, images of her mother intercutting with fierce Tony Jaa poses in her mind. Then she gets back up and goes all Bruce Lee on their butts.
We hear that famous movie icon’s distinctive yells in one of Zen’s earlier movie-watching scenes and now her The Big Boss-style battle cleverly makes two points at once. Firstly, it gets Zen off the hook when anything she does seems familiar. It also allows the film-makers to acknowledge and pay tribute to other movies. This could be a potential cop-out but the referencing here is not empty recreation; it builds on what has come before. The ice factory fight makes far better use of the setting than The Big Boss. A later sequence involving lockers recalls a sequence with fridges from Rumble in the Bronx, but with it’s own spin and rather funny exclamation mark at the end.
Once the first debt collection was complete, I was grinning as Moom and Zen set off to the next joint on the list. “Let’s just see how it goes today, Zen”, Moom advises. Sure mate.
Jija Yanin’s training background is mainly in tae kwon do, and it shows — with plenty of high flying kicking and leaping — but there’s a decent helping of Muay Thai mixed in as well. Choreography is inventive and occasionally gasp-inducing and the stunt performers meet the demands placed on them with dedication, as the outtakes testify. It’s hard to swallow that someone of Jija’s slight frame and stature could take all these guys out, but the angles and editing sell it quite well.
Throughout all this mayhem, it’s easy to cheer Zen on. She just wants her Mum’s money and only fights to get it when attacked for asking for it. The film has some fun during these throw downs too, particularly during a fight in a meatworks where camera angles tease some dreadful almost-injuries Zen is oblivious to nearly causing. There are some genuinely wince-worthy moments too, although they are more often than not accidentally self-inflicted.
Eventually Zen’s debt collection campaign, along with her parents’ attempts to stay in contact, annoy her mother’s former gang boss enough to get drastic and we are served a nearly 20 minute action finale. It verges on too much, although the film-makers work hard to vary the action throughout this extended climax. There’s multiple opponents, fighting in cramped spaces, some weapons usage and more.
When the last villain has (very heavily) hit the ground, the film wraps up quickly and we’re left on what’s meant to be a bittersweet, contemplative note; a bit out of place following the over-the-top action of moments earlier. That’s the dichotomy at the heart of Chocolate. Hard and crunchy on the outside, soft and melty on the inside.