“Chocolate” – A.J. Hakari

An action film that takes itself seriously is a dicey proposition. They always run the risk of being a little too self-righteous, attempting to instill viewers with some sort of lesson while, ironically, providing the sort of thrills they need to turn their minds off to enjoy. If you’re going to have brains as well as brawn, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul, a philosophy the Thai-bred martial arts opus Chocolate executes relatively well. By no means is the film very polished, as it’s fairly rough around the edges and a little unsure on how to do everything it wants to. But while others like it devote too much of themselves to hollow and elaborate plots, Chocolate feels much more refreshing and to the point, unique enough to pique your interest and entertaining enough to hold it.

After overseeing Tony Jaa’s breakout film Ong-Bak, director Prachya Pinkaew here focuses on a hero of more humble origins. Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) is the daughter of a gangster’s moll (Ammara Siripong) forced to part ways with her Japanese lover (Hiroshi Abe). She was also born “special,” her brain developing at a slower rate than other children. But despite this, Zen possesses a rather extraordinary talent. Simply by watching martial arts students or indulging in the occasional action flick, Zen can learn fighting moves and mimic them with pinpoint accuracy. After her beloved mother falls victim to a debilatating illness, Zen finds herself turning to her talents as a means to pay the bills. Quite a few unsavory types owe dear mom some money, and for those who refuse to fork over the cash, Zen proceeds to beat them into submission. However, Zen’s activities have raised the ire of her mother’s former underworld comrades, leading her towards a final battle to rid her family of the criminal life once and for all.

My previous encounters with Asian action pictures prepared me for the wave of melodrama I knew that Chocolate would send crashing down upon me. Such an approach hasn’t always worked for the better; A World Without Thieves and Robin-B-Hood were nearly crippled by their inability to let even a hint of moral ambiguity seep into their stories. Fortunately, this isn’t a big problem with Chocolate, a film that’s slightly more adept at delivering a message to its audience. To clear the air of any exploitative overtones, Pinkaew begins things with a title card dedicating the film to those who were born special. Usually, this would seem like a cheap means of allowing one’s self to get away with cinematic murder, but thankfully, Pinkaew’s intentions are honorable. Never does Chocolate look down upon its main character or her handicap, nor are they used to extract the viewer’s sympathy. Zen merely does what she does, which is protect her mother as fiercely as possible. Admittedly, for what little impact Zen’s disability has on the story at large, it amounts to a pretty basic character quirk in the end. But the film’s offbeat nature is handled well, different enough so as not to be patronizing but still able to stand out amongst those genre imports that make their way to American shores.

This isn’t to say that Chocolate does a flawless job of checking off all the entries on its to-do list. While Zen herself is nicely developed and treated with respect, the characters surrounding her aren’t as lucky. Zen’s mother spends most of her screen time suffering from the notorious Pale Complexion Disease, and a sidekick (Taphon Phopwandee) latches onto Zen out of nowhere. To be fair, these are the same stock players movies like this usually come equipped with, but you’d think they would be awarded with a little bit of the same depth the lead heroine is blessed with. Still, when it comes down to brass tacks, Chocolate is all about the action, a department in which the film does not disappoint. There’s actually a pretty nice progression to Zen’s brawls, starting out modestly before escalating into all-out warfare by the riveting climax. Early on, there’s a distracting reliance on computer-generated effects, but by the time Zen does battle with a butcher’s henchmen, awe-inspiring realism and brutal beatdowns have made a triumphant and rousing return.

Chocolate isn’t out to make a statement, as if it were an unusually aggressive Lifetime movie. Its goal is, like most action movies, to serve up plenty of physical feats for the viewer’s enjoyment. The only difference is that the lead isn’t of the usual genre stock, but the key here is that Pinkaew doesn’t make a big deal out of it. When all’s said and done, Chocolate is good fun, far from high art but just a tad more ambitious than your usual festival of flying fists.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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