Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Thailand! While the action genre has grown lackluster and uninspired elsewhere, Thailand has been witness to the birth of a megastar in Tony Jaa. Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong are the most amazing action movies I’ve seen since Chan’s and Li’s heyday. Don’t misunderstand, both movies are poorly acted and scripted gibberish with plot holes big enough to walk an elephant through, but Jaa’s fight choreography is absolutely jaw dropping. Everything outside of the fights and stunts is instantly forgiven when you see Jaa’s grace and beauty working in brutal collaboration with his fists, knees, and elbows. Jaa seems physically indestructible, but unfortunately he isn’t as strong mentally. He’s currently mired in the mess of directing Ong-Bak 2, and depending on which report you read he’s either disappeared into the jungle, been kidnapped by film studio mafia, or going slowly insane under all the pressure.
With Jaa out of the picture, Prachya Pinkaew, who directed both Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong, has turned his attention in a different direction for his new film, Chocolate. A different star is more accurate, since the direction is still balls to the wall action and fights… although that phrase may not apply to new Thai sensation, Yanin Vismistananda (Jeeja for short.) Because she’s a ball-less lady! A beautifully lithe and long-limbed, high-flying and higher-kicking lady to be sure, but still a lady. Jeeja may not have Jaa’s physical strength, but she still impresses with her speed, reach, and a deadly acrobatic accuracy.
Zin is a tattooed hottie working for a Thai mobster, and Masashi is a Japanese dude working with the Yakuza. Forbidden love blossoms in a montage of walking, hustling, transvestites, and sex scenes, and soon a pregnant Zin is left to fend for herself. She gives birth to an autistic girl she names Zen, and we’re treated to another montage of doctor visits, M&M’s, transvestites, and fly eating. Soon Zen is a teenager and Zin has been diagnosed with cancer and desperately needs expensive chemotherapy. Zen and her friend, Moom, discover a black book filled with people who owe her mom money, and the duo sets out to collect the debts. Lucky for them, this particular form of autism has granted Zen increased physical prowess in other areas. She can catch anything thrown at her thanks to her highly developed spatial awareness, she’s able to befriend the fattest kid in town without lowering her own coolness factor, and she can master martial arts moves she’s seen on TV (Tony Jaa footage actually) and in the streets outside. So get ready for flying fruit, knives, and fat kids… there’s a shitload of ass-kicking coming.
That ass-kicking takes over thirty minutes to start, but once it does, prepare to be awed. Zen (Jeeja) is cute and convincingly “special” (in a Lifetime Movie Channel kind of way) when she’s calm, but fierce and fast once the fighting starts. She mimics stances and moves from Jaa to Bruce Lee including the latter’s famous thumb swipe over the nose and guttural, high pitched growl.
The fight scenes are convincingly painful to watch, but more impressively, Zen’s skills seem to increase with each successive encounter. Her fists, feet, and Chan-like acrobatics all become faster and more precise as the movie goes on. This makes sense narratively as she’s technically learning to fight throughout the movie, but it can make for some awkwardly disjointed clashes early on. A brawl in a fly-infested slaughterhouse impresses with flying knives and Jeeja’s skillful pole fighting. All of these smaller fights pale beside the film’s finale though, when she finds herself outside on a foot-wide ledge two to three stories above the street. Neon signs jutting out from the wall, opened windows, and the hard street below all play painful roles in this amazingly choreographed clash.
As good as Jeeja is, she’s still not on par with Jaa, Chan, or Li (but give her time.) Other weaknesses (aside from the script and overall acting on display) include a roof-top fight set against a green screen for no good reason, the occasional poor editing during action scenes, the slow build-up before the action even starts, and the sense that until the final extended fight Zen is never really challenged or at risk. That challenge comes in the form of a ringer… who happens to be mentally retarded. (I use that term intentionally as I think Chocolate makes a perfect cathartic follow-up for those offended by Tropic Thunder…)
Like any good confectionery treat, the joy of Chocolate is shallow and short-lived. You’ll walk away from the movie suitably impressed with Jeeja’s lightning quick reflexes and malleability, but immediately forget everything else. She’s the star of Chocolate for good reason, and I hope to see her again in bigger and better movies. I also want to take her home and see how many positions I can bend her into before she calls ‘uncle.’
The Upside: Jeeja is fast, ferocious, and cute; the stuntmen suffer horribly for their craft but the result is entertaining as hell; awesome fight finale
The Downside: Some bad editing; narrative drags before the action starts; unnecessary green screen