Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thai Candy

For those of us jonesing for another Tony Jaa movie, take heart: there is Chocolate. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Koong (a.k.a Protector) fame, it does not feature Tony Jaa. It is something different.

It starts with a montage that establishes the backstory: A gangster's girl falls in love with a rival Yakuza. He is exiled, and she goes into seclusion and bears his child. The baby girl, named Zen, is mentally handicapped in an unspecified way, presumably autistic.

She grows up with her sad beautiful mother and a fat goofy neighbor boy sidekick in an old house near a martial arts school. She is withdrawn, but preternaturally aware of her surroundings. She can't be surprised and she can catch anything. It is a good life, although the gangsters from mom's past threaten it.

We are now 30 minutes into the movie, and no real action. Then mom gets cancer and sidekick decides they should try to collect some of mom's old debts to pay for treatment. (Sidenote: it's not clear whether this takes place in Japan or Thailand. It seems to be Japan, but wouldn't National Health take care of mom?)

Well, they brace the manager of an iceplant for the money he owes Zen's mom, but he won't pay. Then we find out that Zen has a special talent - she can imitate all of the martial arts skills she has ever seen, including the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Tony Jaa movies she has watched. The rest of the movie is little Zen kicking butt.

Zen is played by a young woman called Jeeja Yanin, a.k.a Yanin Vismitananda. She does a Rainman-quality acting job when not fighting, and at least a 0.8 of a Tony Jaa when fighting. In addition, she can fight in several styles. In the iceplant fight, she is clearly doing Bruce Lee:
  • The wierd yowling vocalizations
  • Passing her hand in front of her face like brushing flies, or knocking the sweat of her nose with her thumb
  • Hitching up the pants on her front leg
  • Most telling - short, fast strikes, returning to total grounded stillness between
In the next fight, her style is completely different, more flowing, more use of props. It looked a bit like a Jackie Chan tribute. Later fights, she uses her own style, based on Muay Thai, with amazing head-high kicks. But each fight seems to have a touch of flair - lots of blocks in one, weapons in another. I really appreciate touches like that.

Pinkaew is not the most accomplished, stylish director alive, but he is a lot better than he needs to be. He could easily coast on his amazing action sequences, but he gives us a little more. I won't say I'd watch a whole movie like the first 30 minutes of Chocolate, but I found it a heck of a lot more satisfying than the non-action parts of most action movies. I hope he makes many more.

Oh yes, the title? The little girl like to pop M&M-type chocolates in her mouth. She never missed. Not sure what the significance is.

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