In this part of the world, there's no dearth of male action heroes, you know, those with real martial arts background. Think Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, and closer to home, Tony Jaa. How about a female counterpart? You're likely to struggle hard to name a credible one, Michelle Yeoh notwithstanding. So Thai director Prachya Pinkaew is probably shrewd enough to identify this golden opportunity, and so introduces us to Yanin Vismistananda in her debut feature Chocolate.
Those familiar with Pinkaew's martial arts extravaganzas with Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, will know roughly what to expect from Chocolate. Since the rumoured falling out with his main star of those movies, there's definitely some big shoes to fill, and Yanin fills them quite nicely, martial arts wise, though there were certain scenes which were quite clear that she's still a diamond in the rough with many edges left to polish. But that's not to put down her effort, except that I thought as a lady, her final delivery of those choreographed punches and kicks lacked some really hard hitting edge to them, and the curious observation that some required some speeding up, was left to be desired. What could also be improved, is the transitions between fights, because each seemed pretty much stand alone, even though you know that she's supposedly to be battling enemies continuously, but with each combatant, there seemed to be a "reset" to on-guard mode.
But what was learned from the earlier two Thai action movies, was that it was no longer necessary to repeat the action from different camera angles. This would stem from confidence in showing off the stunts from a single viewpoint, and not feel sore from not being able to cover it from multiple angles. And Chocolate had some really nice buildup in the complexity of these set action pieces. It teases with what's over the horizon starting from a few thugs at a street performance, and sets up carefully crafted action sequences for our heroine to flit from one to another, each being an excuse to dispatch goon after goon coming at her.
Influences from Hong Kong action movies are without doubt, as you can recount similar settings in various HK movies being incorporated here, such as Fong Sai-Yuk's half-crouching styled fights under a stage. What was internalized in Chocolate, was probably from the Jackie Chan styled school of action, which fuses some bit comedy, with the utilizing of everyday objects in one's surroundings to throw off opponents, or worked into the action piece as a prop for acrobatic stunts to be performed. I'd bet there are numerous sequences here that Jackie Chan himself would approve and be proud of.
And in true Jackie Chan culture, besides the end credits featuring some of the NG shots and injuries to the stars and stunt folk, you'll be glad to know that Yanin did most of her own stunts, and it's indeed no mean feat fighting in a skirt of that length, without it getting in the way. While the finale battle involves countless of Crazy88 types ala Kill Bill in wave after wave of attacks, culminating in battling it out on the facade of a multi-storey shophouse building complete with smashing windows, ledges and neon signboards, my personal favourite had to be at the abattoir. In reddish hues, the villains are sans shirts, meaning risks of personal injury are higher without padding that can be hidden underneath the clothes. And with menacing looking meat hooks hanging, and using cleavers as projectiles, just make your job drop at how these fights were choreographed and filmed, especially the slamming of bodies against concrete stalls.
Action aside, the first 30 minutes or so was devoted to developing Yanin's Zen (heh) character, a young autistic girl born of gangster parents - Dad Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) is a non-self-respecting Yakuza member who doesn't have a body full of tattoos, and Mom Zin (Ammara Siripong) belongs to the Thai triads, and ex-moll of its head honcho. In a Romeo-Juliet styled love springing from only hate, only in Singapore do you have the sex scene severely edited, which I thought was important as that's how Zen was conceived. Violence is OK, but sex is zero here. Anyway Dad had to exile himself back to Japan to avoid an all out gang war, and Zin now becomes an outcast single parent, who has to struggle with cancer, as well as raising an autistic child.
Children of such nature are usually referred to as special, and the specialness of Zen is her ability to pick up martial arts by observation. Hence thanks to DVDs of Pinkaew's earlier movies, and having to reside beside a Muay Thai school, Zen picks up the skills necessary, and get to use them when she goes hunting for her mother's debtors in order to pay for chemotherapy sessions. Money's everyone's problem, so Zen gets to use her fists, knees and elbows on her opponent's face, body and shin. I'd always love watching knees and elbows connect to deliver blows on opponents and inflicting excruciating pain, and in her lithe form, Zen delivers them with balletic grace.
Anyway I'd guess no one's really interested in how the story gets developed, which is not without its fair share of loopholes, but we're all here to watch Yanin Vismitananda kick some serious butt. And she does so convincingly enough to warrant a fan following onto her next movie, and make it an action one please!