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Realtime >> Friday February 08, 2008
The wind-up girl chronicle

Chocolate, Starring Yanin Vismistananda, Tapon, Popwandee, Pongpat Wachirabonajong, Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, In Thai with English subtitles

Yanin ``Jeeja'' Vismistananda brawls to pay for her mum's medical bills.
This crunchy Chocolate will break your teeth. Your bones, too. And your skull, your legs, your ribs, your limbs and your good sense. Low-brow but high-concept brutalisation gets as far as unleashing an autistic teenage girl to brawl her way through a mob of senselessly violent thugs in order to, well, pay her mother's medical bills - they need more than 30 baht for sure. In the post-feminism, post-autism, post-Ong-Bak ethos, this angry girl is drained of oestrogen and re-programmed, like a gladiatorial robo-babe, to kick plenty of asses with testosterone relish.

Chocolate is the new stunt show by Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong. Leaving no bones unbroken, this is an 80-minute visual exhibition for the new martial arts heroine Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda, having been picked here to play the sole infantry warrior against the army of bad, bad guys. Among the many weaknesses of Chocolate, which include a feeble plot and surprisingly shoddy production design, the greatest shame is its tight-fisted use of Yanin as a belligerent fighting robot rather than a real character.

To place it on a scale, Chocolate is slightly more watchable than Tom-Yum-Goong but much less blood-rushing than Ong-bak. Prachya, along with his stuntmaster Panna Rittikrai, once again relives the faded memory of 1970s Hong Kong kung-fu flicks in their new work; they seem to have spent much more time sweating over the architecture of the hand-to-hand combat than over everything else, like a more meaty script that would also give higher respect to "special children".

Yanin is 24 in real life, but she plays Zen, a character of no more than 15. Daughter of a Japanese yakuza and a Thai mother, autistic Zen is branded a "special child", and her only special quality is the ability to copy all martial arts moves seen on TV and video games and to execute them on real people with flawless geometry. Zen, in other words, is the nightmare-come-true for censorship advocates, a sweet-looking girl who becomes violent because of all the bad stuff on TV.

When her mother falls ill and needs money to pay for the treatment, Zen and her sidekick, Moom (Tapon Popwandee), sets out to collect debts from those who owe her mum. When the first refuses to pay up, Zen, who only speaks in broken, stiff-tongued sentences, is forced to apply all the bone-breaking techniques she's learned from television to real human beings.

She raids the den of an ice-factory boss and a wet market where she dances her deadly waltz amidst bloody carcasses of slaughtered pigs; because of her condition, she knows no fear and can't register the notion of danger or death. In other words, a dear daughter and a perfect debt collector.

Zen's prime target is the vengeful ringleader (Pongpat Wahirabanjong), who has unfinished business with her mother. The film's climactic encounter, which lasts over 20 minutes, bears a striking resemblance to the paperhouse melee in Kill Bill, with the proudly-presented showpiece, oh dear, of the mentally-challenged Zen fighting another mentally-challenged boy (with tics).

I suppose it's meant to be empowering. It's meant for us to clap and cheer as the weak, victimised girl finds her inner strength to beat up those who've wronged her and her family.

But, really? Let's face it: the whole fisting-elbowing-drop-kicking-taekwandoing business is designed as lurid entertainment, and autism is merely an excuse for Zen's superhuman skill. This is not feminist propaganda or an homage to autistic talents - this is just an attempt to repeat the financial success of Ong-bak and Tom-Yum-Goong, especially in the international market. The action sequences in Chocolate are intense, but they lack character and panache; they're a jackhammer whereas in Ong-bak, they're ballistic ballet. What's worse is that they're executed with such nerdy realism without humour or irony.

Whether Yanin has other acting talent besides fighting we cannot know, since the movie defines her character not by her feelings but by her physical skills. Zen only projects her personality when she beats people up, and we sit there in the dark of the theatre counting the idle seconds and waiting for the girl to hike up her flowing hippie skirt and start kicking some butt again. She's like a wound-up toy; we only care to watch her when she moves. It would be unfair to call Chocolate a waste of time, but it won't be too much to say it's a waste of opportunity. Maybe we have to wait for Chocolate 2. Oh well.

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