Just picked up for distribution in the US, and opening shortly in the UK, Chocolate is the debut performance from a young Thai athlete you may well hear a lot more from in the future – in part because she’s the first truly plausible female practitioner of the martial arts since, oh, ever. Jeeja Yanin is the ingénue who kicks, swivels, elbows and whoops her way through wave upon wave of evil Thai gangsters and then feeds herself bucket-loads of M & M’s in the quiet moments.
The film Ong-Bak, by the same director Prachya Pinkaew, was the most exciting martial arts movie in well over a decade – it had genre fans salivating precisely because much of the action was real. There were few special effects, and the individuals involved in many of the fights were often putting themselves in some danger. Muay Thai, the Thai martial arts discipline which involves a great deal of kicking, is electrifying to watch; the only surprise was that it had taken so long to get onto the big screen in a viable form. The choreographer of this film discovered Yanin when she came to audition for another movie in 2004, and she went into training for two whole years while the production team wrote Chocolate for her.
She plays Zen, the daughter of a Japanese yakuza and a Thai gangster’s moll who infuriates her psychopathic boss in Bangkok and is banished to have her baby in the countryside. Zen grows up damaged, or at least with developmental issues, and shows signs of autistic behaviour throughout the film. Her greatest showdown, rather disturbingly, is with another similarly disabled young man (clearly modelled on Jet Li’s character in the atrocious Danny the Dog). Zen has aspects of the savant; she’s a brilliant mimic who absorbs martial arts technique just by watching it on TV or by gazing across the wall of her house into the martial arts school next-door.
When her mother grows sick with cancer, Zen and her sidekick do the rounds of former gangster contacts who still owe money. Zen isn’t going to take no for an answer in an ice-plant, candy warehouse and butchery-plant; she deals with wave upon wave of thug trying to bring her down. She walks out of each situation, triumphant with the cash. She never appears to kill anyone.
All these set-pieces are very good, quite electrifying in fact, though every single one of them goes on for about ten per cent too long in running time. And in between these fights we have acres of poorly-scripted melodrama and saccharine storylines, very much part of Thai film culture, but not usually exported beyond its own shores.
This is a real treat for genre fans, but I hope Yanin gets hired by a much better director sometime soon. These athletes have such short careers and she deserves much better than Pinkaew, who should have been working on an international stage by now, but seems content to stay in Thailand sending out the same old thing.