Judge Joel Pearce is the Rain Man of DVD critics.
She's sweet but deadly.
While Hong Kong has always housed the primary martial arts film industry, Prachya Pinkaew has been putting in a serious effort to steal some of that attention away. While none of the films from this new canon live up to the best of Hong Kong, they have delivered some of the best physical action sequences we've seen in the last decade. That trend continues with Chocolate.
Facts of the Case
Zen (JeeJa Yanin) grows up knowing little of her past. She is autistic, but has a knack for learning physical motion from television. Zen's mother and father betrayed a local crime boss before she was born, and when her mother needs to pay for cancer treatment, the conflict between them all comes back to the surface. Although Zen understands little of what is happening around her, she finds herself at the center of this violence.
The third main film from Thai martial arts director Prachya Pinkaew, Chocolate is a step up from Ong-Bak and The Protector as a genuine cinematic effort, but half a step down in total kickass awesomeness. The attempt at storytelling shows a little more effort, at least. While the former films were both essentially riffs on the classic "innocent martial artist from the boonies is brought into the corrupt big city" genre staple. The premise for Chocolate isn't much more sophisticated, but it's at least an attempt: the idiot savant concept is new in the martial arts world, and it brings more emotional content to the character than Kham's fury over his stolen elephant.
This is all made possible by the passable acting skills of JeeJa Yanin, who the producers discovered on the set of Born to Kill. She's not going to be winning any major acting awards for this performance, but she brings a humanity and vulnerability to the role that we're not used to seeing in Asian martial arts slugfests. She's also really, really awesome at martial arts, and she should be. She trained for two solid years before they started filming Chocolate, and they spent two years filming the movie. Yanin is plausible as an autistic girl. Obviously, it's not a role that Dustin Hoffman would be proud of, but it's nice to see them trying.
Of course, by midway through the film, the quality of the acting and plot are completely unimportant. Pinkaew knows we came for the action, and he delivers consistently. The action sequences in Chocolate show more creativity than we saw in Ong-Bak and The Protector, if none of them show quite the same virtuoso athleticism that Tony Jaa is capable of. He does, thankfully, have the same stunt team, though, so we still get groups of fighters who are willing to risk everything for a great looking shot. At the end of the film we see the ordeals that some of them were put through, and we feel both awe and pity for these brave fighters. Like so many of these films, there are some slow segments to wade through, but it's definitely worth it once the fists and feet start flying.
Technically, the production is also showing off a better budget. On DVD, Chocolate looks better than Ong-Bak did on film, and I'm sure it looks even better in high definition. Magnet has done a pretty good job with this disc, and it shows consistently balanced color, sharp detail, and few digital artifacts. It's not flagged for progressive displays, but most users won't find that a problem. The audio is also solid, with good use of all channels. I do strongly recommend the original Thai track, though, given the typically low quality of the dub. Sadly, we don't get many extras on the disc, just a production featurette designed for Thai television. It's got some good footage, but I suspect that we could have gotten a lot more.
Like so many martial arts films, Chocolate isn't going to appeal to everyone. While there is some attempt here to tell a decent story, it really only works as a spectacular display of physical prowess. Of course, that's more than enough for many viewers, and with good reason. Chocolate is a wild spectacle of violence, and is required viewing for all fans of martial arts. For those unable to see it on Blu-Ray, the DVD is a perfectly acceptable format as well.
Not guilty. Please don't send Zen after me.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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