I know almost nothing about martial arts movies. I don't think I've ever seen anything starring Bruce Lee. I know I haven't seen Prachya Pinkaew's apparently legendary Ong-bak. However, now that I've seen Pinkaew's newest offering, Chocolate, I feel compelled to search his other films out.
From the perspective of women kicking ass, Chocolate is nothing short of amazing. The protagonist, Zen (JeeJa Yanin) spends the majority of the movie running around kicking the asses of people (mostly men) twice her size and three or four times her age. She's flawless, brutal, and never loses. She repeatedly saves her male counterpart, Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), who never fights. And it is her, not her absent father Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), who eventually wins the big last battle.
Zen also has what I assume is intended to be an autism-spectrum disorder. She doesn't talk much, and when she does it is very simplistic. Her expressions tend towards blankness. She has obsessions. She has a pathological fear of houseflies. She actually reminds me, both when she's fighting and when she's not, of River from Serenity/Firefly. This could have been handled very, very badly.
Some critics think it was. BlogCritic Caballero Oscuro writes:
Pinkaew criminally uses Zen's autism as a flimsy plot device, trying to pass off her savant-like fighting ability as some kind of new "drunken master" style that actually caused this viewer more annoyance than entertainment. Zen has no formal martial arts training, but instead picks up her skills by watching old movies on TV. The basic setup of every fight is that Zen stumbles into a crime den looking like a strong gust of air would tip her over and sounding like an escapee from a mental ward, then proceeds to kick every ass in the place when her payment request is denied. Since the film isn't wall-to-wall fights, that leaves lots of screen time to be filled with Zen's grating character. There was absolutely no compelling reason to give the character a disability other than as some kind of sexist explanation of how a girl could fight so well. In reality, Jeeja trained for many months to get battle-ready for the film, but Pinkaew's fantasy construct leaves no room for her exceptional efforts.
I mostly disagree. Zen doesn't learn just from watching movies--she also lives next door to a kickboxing school, and she clearly spends hours watching the instruction and practicing. She strikes me less as a savant and more as a person whose brain causes her to become obsessive about things; fighting has become one of those things. This is, to my knowledge, a common component of autism-spectrum behavior. To my eye, the film didn't so much display Zen's autism as a handicap, but as a superpower. While it was not exactly believable, I don't find that to be a detriment in an action movie. I very much liked it.
It was the one step farther that I didn't like. At the film's climax, Zen fights another disabled savant, a boy who has some sort of convulsive disorder (maybe supposed to be epilepsy or cerebral palsy?). She is losing until she starts to mimic his movements. For me, this is where the film turns from a rather radical but positive comment on differing abilities to a farce. Their fight is also anti-climactic, and it's in the midst of this Kill Bill rip-off battle seen where Zen takes on at least 50 henchmen, which sort of cheapened the rest of the film for me in general.
Those are really my only complaints, though. Overall, Chocolate is an excellent action movie with one of the most fantastic protagonists I've seen in forever. Watching her fight is just so much fun. There is no romantic story line, save the background one between Zin's mother and father. This relationship also brings race and the stupidity of racism and national allegiances into the story, as Zen's mother is Thai and her father is Japanese. Zen is not motivated to her actions by a man or by her mothering instinct, but is instead collecting on debts owed to her own mother, who is sick and needs the money for treatment. Also, there is a mob of killer drag queens. How can that possibly be wrong?
I would love to give this movie four stars. If I hadn't found the palsied fighter at the end so very offensive, I would. As it is, it gets 3, and if we had a 3.5 option, I'd use that.