**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras D
starring Yanin Vismitananda, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Ammara Siripong
screenplay by Nepalee & Matthew Chukiat Sakveerakul
directed by Prachya Pinkaew
by Bryant Frazer If Prachya Pinkaew's 2003 Ong-bak became a worldwide hit partly on novelty value--star Tony Jaa was a new face, and Muay Thai was sufficiently under-represented in martial-arts movies to come across as a fresh new fighting style--then Chocolate is a logical next career move for the director. After all, how better to one-up your discovery of a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine than with another dazzling kickboxer who just happens to be a girl?
That's pretty much the value proposition behind Chocolate, so titled because that seems to be the only nutritive source for young Zen ("Jeeja" Yanin Vismitananda), the autistic daughter of Thai gangster's moll Zin (Ammara Siripong) and Japanese yakuza Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). Zen pops candies into her mouth as she watches Ong-bak on TV, sponging up the details of Jaa's unstoppable fighting technique. Grokking the finer points of Muay Thai comes in handy when Zen's friend Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a ledger detailing debts owed Zen's mom that date back to her shady criminal past. Because the money would help finance cancer-ridden Zin's expensive hospital treatment, it's up to Mangmoom and Zen to compel payment from a bunch of dubious characters.
After a half-hour or so of this sort of exposition, Zen and Mangmoom head out on their own, going door-to-door as pint-sized bill collectors and putting the squeeze on Zin's debtors. That's when Chocolate switches to action mode, stringing set-pieces together with precious little connective tissue (like, say, story or character development) between them. Part of the problem here is the very nature of the lead character: Whenever she's not bouncing around a fight scene, slamming her fists and knees, hard, into the faces and guts of her adversaries, Zen is a withdrawn, mostly noncommunicative child. There's a clever touch in one of the early brawls when Zen stares brightly into the camera (and, it follows, into her opponents' faces) while emitting coyly exuberant Bruce Lee-inflected yowls. The dissonance comes from this petite, sweet-faced kid (Vismitananda is 24 fairly persuasively playing 15) filling the shoes of any number of macho kung-fu masters who preceded her, and it's the closest Chocolate gets to really hitting a groove. But the character's autism demands that her confidence and cockiness disappear once the violence ends, which turns the film absolutely inert. That might help explain the generally frenetic pace, as well as the brisk 90-minute running time--Chocolate is always scrambling towards its next action sequence because, ultimately, it hasn't got anywhere else to go.
I worried at first that the movie wouldn't overcome the simple fact that Vismitananda lacks the apparent body-mass to make most of her kicks look like they connect painfully, but that's largely a non-issue, with the filmmakers using an array of editorial tricks to spotlight her flexibility and athleticism while minimizing the need for powerful contact. Fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai takes a cue from the Jackie Chan playbook, weaponizing the props and making the most of specific locations, including a slaughterhouse, an ice factory (in homage to Lee's 1971 The Big Boss), and--most spectacularly--a multi-levelled street scene that sees Zen bringing the pain to villains on ledges outside windows and amid the light-up signs of a meticulously-constructed city-block soundstage. For those to whom a cross between Kill Bill and Sister Street Fighter sounds like a good time, this is the stuff you'll be waiting for, and it doesn't disappoint.
Still, the cumulative effect is numbing, like watching somebody else play a cool videogame with lame cut-scenes bookending each frenzied, showcase boss battle. I doubt martial-arts fans will be surprised to see that Chocolate has a couple of those wonky, arguably insensitive touches that sometimes pepper Asian action films. At one point, Zen is confronted by a talented but twitchy, bespectacled fighter tagged in the credits as "epileptic boxer," a potentially exploitative gesture I read in context as inclusive and egalitarian. (I was less comfortable with the film's treatment of several transvestite characters, who are gunned down in an atypically bloody fit of gunplay.) And despite plenty of R-rated violence throughout, North American viewers are more likely to be thrown for a loop by an extended, incongruously explicit sex scene that shows Zen's tattooed parents in the act of conception. I got the feeling the local audience was meant to perceive something inherently taboo in the idea of miscegenation and wondered if there was any subtextual connection between the girl's ostensible half-breed status and her autism.
If, as a farang, I'm not quite qualified to unpack the film's cultural baggage, I can complain about some of its stylistic choices and/or technical shortfalls. Apparently shot in HD, Chocolate, at its most dimly lit, exhibits distracting video noise, a problem exacerbated by a few extreme (and, to be frank, ugly) colour choices in the digital-grading process that tilt some shots towards deep blue-green and push others into fuzzy orange territory. Watching the un-corrected, six-minute making-of clip featured on Magnolia's Blu-ray Disc (a two-minute trailer brings the total running time of said platter's supplementary material to approximately eight minutes) made me wish that Pinkaew and company had opted for a more neutral, natural appearance throughout.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
These are personal preferences, of course. I like film grain but I'm not crazy about video noise. The bigger issue is that Chocolate, at least as I encountered it, is riddled with blocking artifacts, something generally associated with too much data and too little bandwidth. Without seeing a 35mm or digital-cinema print, I can't say with certainty whether this is a flaw in the VC-1-encoded stream (the 92-minute movie takes up 20.8 GB on a single-layer BD-25), if it represents a corner cut (or mistake) in the post-production process, or if it simply represents a limitation of the digital cameras used by the filmmakers. I re-watched some of the worst-looking shots and checked the video bitrate, and low data rates could hardly be said to correspond with the blockiness. (One especially nasty-looking shot clocked in at upwards of 30 mbps--not maxed-out, but not exactly starving for bits, either.) My video rating above assumes that the film's North American Blu-ray release offers an accurate rendition of the source material; were the artifacts conclusively introduced during the compression process, I'd dock the transfer a letter grade or more. Other than the blockiness, the image is quite pleasing. There is evidence of noise reduction being applied here and there--not enough, in any event, to significantly affect the aforementioned video noise. A bit of clipping is also present in highlights, an artifact no doubt attributable to the limited dynamic range of an HD camera as opposed to any malfeasance in the authoring-and-compression stage. The transfer is presented in HD-native 1.78:1, a format that doesn't correspond with any theatrical aspect ratio but will fill out a 16x9 display.
The attendant 5.1 mix, encoded in the lossless DTS-HD MA format, is sufficiently robust, each channel regularly carrying not just ambience but sound effects and music as well. Listeners can choose English-dub or Thai audio; Dolby Digital 5.1 options are also available in both languages. Curiously, the only English subtitle option is English SDH, meaning the captions sometimes distractingly include the odd line of dialogue spoken in English and various foley cues. The disc is rounded out with a series of HD trailers for other Magnolia genre properties--The Host, Splinter, and The Signal--in addition to a hilariously-out-of-place-in-this-context promo for Dan Rather and HDNET News.
In the final analysis, Chocolate packages a physically impressive performance in a diverting but largely joyless experience with neither the sense of humour nor the kind of strong characterizations that would bolster its frankly ludicrous storyline. Vismitananda is awfully fierce, she looks like she's having a good time (which proves infectious), and the requisite outtakes-and-injuries footage that runs underneath the end credits confirms her status as a bad-ass. I sure hope this spirited newcomer receives a more undeniable platform for her talent soon. Originally published: April 6, 2009.