Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: the Thai film CHOCOLATE is about an autistic woman who is a Muay Thai savante. Eventually, she battles a man whose moves stem from his Tourette’s syndrome. If you wish to cry “exploitation!” at this point, well, go ahead. Just don’t get all gooey over RAIN MAN or I AM SAM around me, okay? Fair’s fair.
Thing is, if you want to compare using mental disability for a bald-faced Oscar bid to using it to drive battle choreography that expresses a character’s unique personality, my points go to the latter. CHOCOLATE star “Jija” Yanin Vismistananda (that’s the way she’s listed in the press notes) trained five years for the role, and there’s an otherworldly beauty to her affectless grace and superhuman precision. When her character, Zen, begins to channel her full-on Bruce Lee — complete with replicated battle cries and trademarked battle intensity — the sudden thoroughness of the resurrection is enough to send chills down your spine.
As he did with ONG BAK, director Prachya Pinkaew has given Vismistananda no shortage of spectacular set-pieces to run through, including a killer finale that takes the action vertical against the façade of a four-story building. The plotting is better than the by-the-numbers narrative of ONG BAK — there are a few more layers to the drama, including the Romeo and Juliet romance between a handsome Yakuza (Hiroshi Abe) and his Thai mafia counterpart (“Som” Amara — what’s with all the quotation marks?) that spawns Zen, and the daughter’s subsequent quest for money to pay for her mother’s chemotherapy, which drives the bulk of the film. It’s still apparent, though, that Pinkaew’s focus is weighted towards action — three consecutive battle scenes employ the exact same dramatic motivation, and whatever power might have been derived from a reunion between Zen and her long-estranged father is deferred in favor of getting the man into battle as quickly as possible.
Pinkaew prefaces CHOCOLATE with a written explanation that I presume is meant to mollify those who might find this whole concept offensive (do people in Thailand go to movies without knowing what the film is about?). That may work, but the proof follows in the film itself, in not playing Zen for laughs, in choreographing the character so that her moves emerge because of — not despite — who she is. CHOCOLATE treats its protagonist with respect, and delivers a dazzling kineticism that easily transcends political correctness.
Now if only Dustin Hoffman could kick ass like this.
BTW: The title comes from the innovative way Zen eats M&M’s. Thought you’d like to know.
CHOCOLATE (Magnet, 2008; 89 mins. In Thai) Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Cast: “Jija” Yanin Vismistananda, Hiroshi Abe, “Som” Amara, Pongpat Wachirabangjong.