First-time actress JeeJa Yanin underwent four years of self-induced torture to make Chocolate, Thai director Prachya Pinkaew's latest martial arts film. After following the director's instruction to engage in vigorous acrobatic and fight training for two of those years, she then spent the following two piecing it all together into a full-blown performance as this little ball of fire with vengeance in her eyes. It's all an effort to construct another installment in the Ong-Bak director's catalogue of athletics-based showcases, ones that usually work out to be more of a resume for the lead actor than a coherent picture. I'll be one of the first to acknowledge that I didn't dig either Ong-Bak or The Protector all that much, just because of their hollowness and their lack of a coherent story.
That fact makes it all the more pleasing that I absolutely loved Chocolate, suspended disbelief and all.
Maybe it's because this far-fetched premise is fleshed out much more than Prachya Pinkaew's previous flicks. Chocolate follows an autistic girl named Zen (Yanin) -- one of the rare types that maintain relatively high brain function -- who has lightning quick reflexes and photographic memory. Learning from television and observing the Thai kickboxing school next door to her home, she quickly builds her own fighting style based on what she's seen. All the while, Zen's mother, a former girlfriend to a Japanese Yakuza boss, has fallen ill and doesn't have the money to cover her treatments or medication. To pay her medical bills, Zen and her semi-adopted brother Moom go out, loan ledger in hand, to try and collect money that's owed to their mother. After an unsuccessful attempt that left them bullied and bruised, Zen puts her years of watching fights and kicking a wooden pillar into action -- aiming to go as far as she can to save her mother. I couldn't help but picture Oh Dae-su in Oldboy asking himself whether fifteen years of "imaginary training" could come to use in the real world, only to discover that "yes, it can".
Once the switch between character development and balls-out choreography gets flipped, Chocolate quickly focuses all attention on capturing JeeJa Yanin as she bruises, blisters, and bludgeons the living daylights out of her onslaught of opponents -- and, once she does, it's heart-pounding, non-stop action at its finest. Though the plot quickly devolves into little more than a framework to carry the bloodthirsty autistic girl from location to location, it still holds onto enough sentiment to give Zen's rampage an emotional core. She completely gravitates our attention to her kick-heavy style as she throws thugs around a crystal-blue icehouse, a neon-lit meat plant, as well as a couple of other locations. Though it obviously soaks into familiar Pinkaew territory by sending Zen through tight squeezes and underneath objects like glass-topped tables, the energy present in Yanin's petite, ferocious posturing is breathtaking enough to make it all feel fresh.
Blending boldly saturated visuals with slick editing and controlled shaky-cam movement, Chocolate is also a lot more visually appealing than Prachya Pinkaew's other works. As it progresses through Zen's path of destruction, we're treated to a bright, blooming color style that reminds me of a mish-mash between Korean cinematographer Hyung-ku Kim's work in The Host with some of the more suitably edited '90s Hong Kong pictures like Fist of Legend. This visual style gracefully captures Zen's transition from child to young adult -- an erratic time where she snatches apples out of thin air and pops chocolate off of her wrist into her mouth -- while focusing on simple cues that will come into play later in her story, such as her fear of flies and the way it connects to her ability to dodge all sorts of moving objects.
What really builds Chocolate into a martial arts triumph is, as to be expected, the breakout performance from JeeJa Yanin. She's completely enthralling as Zen, both in athletic capacity and acting chops, as she nails the almost comic-book style autistic renegade surprisingly well for being a first-time actress. Picture a late-teens/early-twenties female Rain Man with feet of fire, and you've got Zen. Yanin is challenged all throughout Chocolate, flinging herself through pipes in factories and against the rattling banister next to a train, all of which she hits faultlessly. But then, once she's worn slap out and coated with scuffs and bruises of her own, she pumps the film full of personality by soaking back into her high-function autistic persona. And, wouldn't you know it, she sells both sides of Zen with polish and a sort of quirky believability, earning herself a spot near the top of any ass-kicking heroine list.
It's the balance that Chocolate strikes between dazzling choreography and distinctive character development that makes it Prachya Pinkaew's best film to date, one that differs from his other efforts by having a story that we can actually grab a hold of and ride out until the end of this 92-minute breakneck rollercoaster. Its rhythm ebbs and flows like most other of its ilk -- all coming to a blood-soaked, bone-crunching whopper of a finale -- but the energy generated by its uniqueness takes it a step or two above most of the other martial arts showpieces pumping out of the region. Plus, it's strangely sweet and heartwarming, due in large part to the concentrated focus on JeeJa Yanin's quirky charm. She'll certainly put the years of spirited training she did for Chocolate to work in other pictures, but there's something about her freshman outing here that'll always glow as one of the genre's great hybrid performances.
Magnolia/Magnet have presented Chocolate in a standard-width Blu-ray case with attractive artwork that mirrors one of the Thai poster concepts. It features a sharply-designed array of menus that feature Jeeja Yanin next to sepia-toned scenes from the film, all highlighted by quirky "fight" sound effects when you move from options to option with the remote. For reference, the disc automatically defaults to the English audio option if you don't toggle to the original Thai language at the start.
Video and Audio:
Considering that Chocolate is stuck on a single-layer Blu-ray disc, it sports a pretty mean 1080p transfer from Magnolia/Magnet. Expanded a bit from its original 1.85:1 framing to a screen-filling 1.78:1 image, this VC-1 encode taps into the staggering detail present in each shot to the best of its capabilities. It results in a richly-detailed, mostly stable image rich with all the blistering colors that the film possesses, one that keeps its color saturation in check even amid the blasts of wild color palettes. Black levels dive pretty deep, but some pixilation and mild macroblocking pop up when color contrast grows more drastic. It's nothing too terribly distracting, though, and certainly nothing to detract from the outstanding blasts of detail and motion perseverance. No matter how fast JeeJa Yanin's motion gets, the image keeps up with her speed with exquisite accuracy. Though the color timing might be off a bit (determined after taking a look at the footage from the making-of feature), Chocolate provides a surprisingly vivid and enjoyable visual experience.
But as effective as the image is, it doesn't quite match the potency that Chocolate's Thai DTS HD Master Audio track pushes out. The whole track is mixed a little loud, so it's probably a wise idea to dial down one or two notches from your normal listening level so that the booming nature of the track won't drown out the softer details. First, a slight negative -- verbal clarity gets a little scratchy during louder-voiced scenarios, creating a mild nails-on-a-chalkboard effect in a few spots. Outside of that, we're working with one of the punchier, crystal clear tracks to come out of the high-definition woodwork, something accentuated by the persistent martial arts elements in the film.
With a broad range of mid-level to deep bass work and plenty of crisp highs, the entire dynamic range gets a workout with this track. Each one of Jeeja Yanin's punches and kicks rattles the listening stage, giving the lower-frequency channel plenty of throbbing energy with each shot. The slicing of blades and the rattling of metal in the sound design show that more delicate effects sound crisp and clean, stretching back to the rear channels with unrelenting consistency. It's an incredibly active track, easily one of the better tracks of the year's releases. The English subtitles are very good, but sadly there's only an SDH option -- so the ambient effects in the background are described out in the text. Spanish Subtitles are also available, as are an English DTS HD Master Audio track, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Thai 5.1 track.
Making of Chocolate (8:56, SD VC-1):
Sadly, the only special feature is a collage of standard promotional pieces featuring the film, including press junkets and semi-backslap interviews. Some solid behind-the-scenes footage can be pinpointed through the mess, as can a bit of interview time with director Pinkaew and actress Jeeja Yanin. Though it's not listed like this, the last two or three minutes function pretty close to being a trailer.
Speaking of Trailers, we've also got three high-definition previews here for Splinter, The Signal, and The Host.
Fans of fight choreography showpieces -- Ong-Bak style or Jet Li/Jackie Chan repertoire alike -- will find an excruciating amount of material to enjoy in Chocolate, but Prachya Pinkaew's martial arts picture succeeds on a few other levels. With the charm of JeeJa Yanin at the heart of its quirky charisma as an autistic revenge-seeker, there's also an endearing narrative that keeps the story flowing splendidly from one attractively-shot choreographed piece to another. The concept is indelibly hard to believe, but the sheer velocity behind Chocolate's main attraction keep it completely engrossing from start to finish. Magnolia's Blu-ray, though skimpier on the extras than the U.K edition, looks great and sounds exquisite, which makes it a very firmly Recommended presentation of a great genre flick.