Chocolate – ช็อคโกแลต
Director: Prachya Pinkaew (ปรัชญา ปิ่นแก้ว)
Cast: Jeeja Yanin (ญาณิน วิสมิตะนันทน์), Hiroshi Abe (阿部 寛), Pongpat Wachirabunjong (พงษ์พัฒน์ วชิรบรรจง)
The tone and style of action films is undergoing a dramatic shift, with pundits speculating on who will take over from Jet Li and Jackie Chan as the world’s reigning martial arts film star. And make no mistake about it, no one has had a bigger impact on action and martial arts cinema worldwide than these two. The fallout from this transition has been a glut of films desperate to capitalize on our hunger and admiration for amazing feats of strength and agility, resulting in a veritable competition to film more dangerous stunts and real, full contact fighting. Despite the best efforts of Hong Kong and its stars Donnie Yen (甄子丹) and Wu Jing (吳京), no country’s film industry seems better poised to take up the mantle than Thailand. Yet for all the celebrated stunts and physicality in films such as Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong (The Protector, ต้มยำกุ้ง), and Born to Fight (Kerd ma lui), there is a noticeable lack of engaging stories, character development, and basic film competence found in the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. Yes, this even applies to Chocolate, my pick for one of the worst films 2008 had to offer.
I first caught this film last year and was not impressed. After giving it another shot recently, I can honestly say I’m even less impressed. Now, as I write this, it is important to base this review in the context of international action aesthetics and what I consider to be the apex of action utilization in film – Hong Kong cinema, of which I am an enormous admirer and tireless advocate.
Chocolate is the next entry in Thai action cinema from the filmmakers behind Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong, and Born to Fight, to name but a few. Without Tony Jaa or Dan Chupong (ชูพงษ์ ช่างปรุง), regulars in new Thai cinema, helmers instead turned to young actress Jeeja Yanin and cast her in her first starring role as an autistic girl with uncanny martial arts abilities going after debtors in order to pay for her mother’s hospital bills. If you’re expecting more in terms of story, plot, or motivation, then look elsewhere. This is a film with threadbare reasons for action.
Now, let’s get right to the heart of why this film ultimately fails. Authors such as Pattana Kitiarsa argue that martial arts films from Thailand are more about national sentiment and protectionism based in traditional masculinity. While I can see how this applies to films like Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, I believe that with Chocolate and the upcoming Power Kids, Thailand has moved beyond that formula into a realm based purely on international commercial appeal. No longer are filmmakers using a simple-minded, country bumpkin as a protagonist. Instead, they turn to a young, autistic girl who brings with her the common characteristics of autism – poorly developed social interaction, limited communication, and repetitive behavior. Strangely enough, her motor skills seem fine, though! While she no doubt functions to generate as much sympathy from the audience as possible, especially when this seemingly innocent girl is surrounded by a gaggle of tough-looking thugs, her essentially robotic status and on-off nature dehumanize her to the point of total indifference. Not that this is the effect autism has on people in reality, but this is how the filmmakers use it – as a mask or a shield they hide behind to avoid treating her as a human. Tony Jaa’s characters in Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong were single-minded by choice, giving him a nationalist, patriotic bent as he recovered national treasures. Poor Jeeja is nothing more than a top left to spin or a robot set on “Hyper Destruction” for nothing more than the delight of the audience, awkward story and pointless characters be damned. Yes, Jackie Chan may run around like a chicken with its head cut off in a film such as Project A, but as noted author Stephen Teo explains about Jackie’s job as a director on that film, “the kung fu sequences are better integrated with the narrative than had been the case in his previous film.” Before reaching the age of 30, Jackie was also solidifying an origial screen persona which contributed to “Hong Kong’s social development.” Making matters worse in Chocolate is the inability of director Prachya Pinkaew to connect Jeeja’s assumed motivation, her mother’s illness, with the ensuing carnage. She seems more intent on aping Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa and putting her fighting skills on display for the audience she knows is watching than actually saving her mother in the film world. Often facing more than 10 opponents in each action scene, these fights quickly succumb to flashy excess with zero emotional resonance. And a note to the director, simply interspersing what you consider to be tender, heartwarming scenes of familial conflict and relational restoration between gratuitous beat downs does not connect action to story, nor does it make you a good director by any sense of the phrase.
Despite praise for the film focused solely on the action (as of this point, it has a whopping 75% fresh rating on rottentomatoes thanks to the action scenes, continuing the unfortunate trend of giving a free pass to stupid films simply because they contain action), much of the film’s faults lie with its approach to action. First, let’s talk about the influence of other, more famous martial artists, notably Bruce Lee. Much is made of martial arts films from Thailand as spiritual successors to Hong Kong action, and Thailand itself is certainly doing everything it can to make that connection, from the Jackie Chan stand-in saluting Tony Jaa in Tom Yum Goong to Jeeja mimicing Bruce Lee’s mannerisms and trademark woops while she fights. Take a look at the latter. Warning, this video is potentially embarassing to watch if you hate horrible impressions.
Much like Quentin Tarantino’s appropriation of a lot of Asian popular culture for his films, Chocolate wears its influences on its sleeves, and it never goes beyond visual references to provide further insight. As another example, think of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), a film loved in the West for its exotic, sumptuous portrayal of China but derided in the East as a film that panders to those with stereotypical views of the Orient. It has fantasy-inspired themes, obligatory fights in tea houses and bamboo forests, and gravity-defying swordplay. Does that make it a true wuxia pian film akin to the best films of King Hu (胡金銓), Ching Siu-Tung, or Tsui Hark?
Further hurting the merits of Chocolate are advertisements and blurbs which push the wireless nature of the film and the idea that all the moves are performed without camera trickery. Well, as you can see from the video below, that claim is not true. Take a look.
- In the first scene, her spinning heel kick is complemented by a kick from the other leg going in the opposite direction. You can tell by the cuts in the slow-motion segment that it was clearly not all in one take. So even if wires were not used, it was definitely pieced together.
- In the second scene, the poor guy she kicks in the back is noticeably falling at a slower rate than normal and even slows down a tiny bit before hitting the post.
- Take a look at this third scene. Normally, when individuals succumb to the force of gravity, they fall straight down or at least in an arc (if they were initially propelled). People don’t usually make sudden, 30 degree shifts in direction after starting a downward trajectory.
- I still stand by my claim that this fourth scene was accomplished with wires. Take a look at it in slow-motion. It is clear that her spin and lift off from her left leg would not be enough to lift her 5 1/2 – 6 feet in the air.
- This one is just plain obvious. No doubt she is supposed to be using the sign as a sort of spring board to launch herself at her opponent, but there is a second where she is actually suspended in mid-air with her back on the sign (1:07 in full speed, 1:09 in slow-motion), completely defying gravity!
- Kudos to the stunt guy for making Jeeja look competent while making himself look like someone who forgot how to fight, but it’s clear he was lifted off the sign. He didn’t jump. Nevermind that a fall that high onto pavement would cripple anybody unless it was controlled.
- Again, she is lifted off like the stunt guy in the previous scene.
From the way the characters move, rise, and fall, it is clear they are assisted by an off-camera crew. Now, is that a negative thing? Not at all! Even Jackie Chan used wires to emphasize the power of a sweep as the victim’s legs are literally yanked out from under them. And of course, later in his career, he has taken to wire-assisted stunts quite frequently. It is not a bad thing to fear for one’s physical safety. But what Chocolate is doing is upping the ante through false claims, and some less observant viewers have proven to be easily swayed. Yes, the end credits show a lot of painful after-effects of falls and strikes. Afterall, the endless supply of faceless thugs (played by forever ignored stuntmen and women) are spat out from a virtual pez dispenser only to be set up and knocked down by flying knees and elbows. But what are they suffering for? All I can fathom is that their uninspired, telegraphed attacks and amazingly acrobatic falls certainly make Jeeja look good. For me, the mark of a successful martial arts film is not how many people were injured or how real the fights are. If I want that, I will watch UFC. It is how well a stunt team can work together to keep each other safe while delivering impressive action packaged in a compelling film. And by that measure, Chocolate fails miserably.