I grew up watching a lot of Martial arts films, and as much as I love the genre, it’s not immune to its brand of formulaic trappings. Mobs of goons are always getting decimated by a single person, and fighters use the environment as weapons. Oftentimes there’s a villain that the main character faces off with that has an unusual fighting quirk, and the protagonist is usually the underdog who still beats the bad guy despite their inexperience. Chocolate engages in all of these clichés with some level of self-awareness, but the last one contains an interesting tweak: The main character, Zen (Yanin Vismistananda) is autistic. If the concept of an autistic teenager kneeing people in the face with Muay Thai moves and letting out Bruce Lee sounds turns you off, I get it. I really do. I think it’s kind of awesome, but I won’t deny it’s a problematic route for a movie to take. However, I believe other issues with the film hinder it far more than the autism angle.
The movie exposits on Zen’s backstory. Her mother, Zin (Ammara Siripong), was a Thai mobster, while her father, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), was a Yakuza boss. Both meet each other and fall in love, but Zin’s boss and former lover No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) condemns their relationship by shooting himself in the foot (A bit overdramatic, but okay) and tells Zin never to see Masashi again. For their safety, Masashi goes back to Japan, and Zin leaves the gangster life behind. Zen is born shortly after, and she is diagnosed with autism. She turns out to be a savant, however, as she learns Muay Thai and Jeet Kun Do by watching Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee films while growing up (that’s hardcore), and she hones her reflexes by catching balls thrown at her without even looking. As Zen grows into a teenager, her mother develops cancer, and she doesn’t have enough money to pay for treatment. However, Zen’s childhood friend Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee) discovers a journal belonging to Zin when she was moneylender in the mob, which details a list of people who owe her. Zen and Moom decide to collect the debts to pay for Zin’s chemotherapy. Of course, the debtors aren’t very cooperative, so Zen “persuades” them with her martial arts skills.
Lets immediately address the elephant in the room. While having an autistic savant as the main character in a film isn’t a particularly new or daring concept, I’m confident that it hasn’t been done in a martial arts movie, not before this film at least. Zen can be seen as a commentary of the standard martial arts movie protagonist. With some exceptions, most protagonists in the genre are rebellious underdogs with a single, simple motivation that drives them. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, but since the choreography is typically the primary focus, it leaves little room for character complexity (Again, with exceptions. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fearless, etc). In Chocolate’s case, the simple-mindedness of the main character justifies her disability. The character herself is also well performed. Yanin Vismistananda herself is not autistic, but she gives a convincing performance as one, and it never comes across as fake or forced. As someone who grew up with three autistic cousins, I recognized a lot of the body language Yanin used that’s prevalent amongst people with autism. The rocking back and forth, the consistent habits, the repetition and mumbling of words, the way she carries herself, and how she moves her arms. Not only does Yanin do admirably in the martial arts department, but she also manages to sell some emotional scenes as well, as the movie doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of raising an autistic child in a low-class environment. It’s not an avenue I expected a film of this genre to take, but I appreciated the filmmakers’ attempt to insert some relatable depth to their characters.
However, this is where we get into the movie’s tonal issues. While the film has moments that make it feel like a down to earth drama/crime film, in the same breath, it’s also got some pretty silly scenes. There’s the before-mentioned fact that an autistic girl learns martial arts by watching too many movies, but then she proceeds to get into a 10-1 Kung-Fu fight with mobsters in an ice factory à la Bruce Lee from The Big Boss. She also bounces candy into her mouth like Jackie Chan from Armour of God, which is a fun reference. I think an autistic martial artist who learns how to fight through visual stimuli alone is a stupidly fun idea. Still, it’s opposed tonally to the dramatic and relatively grounded setup that the film put down. Chocolate doesn’t treat the concept of autism as a joke, but it doesn’t handle it all that seriously either, and it leaves us in this weird middle ground where the audience doesn’t know exactly how seriously they should take it. Does Zen’s speedy ability to master Muay Thai via her autistic mind make a mockery of the differently-abled, or does it empower them by implying that they can do a lot of the complex things that people with normal brain functions can do? Am I a terrible person for finding genuine enjoyment in watching an autistic teenager beat the ever-loving stuffing out of fully grown men with katana sheathes? Am I thinking about this too hard? Probably.
Speaking of beating the stuffing out of people, let’s talk about the choreography. Prachya Pinkaew directed Chocolate, and the martial arts choreography was done by Panna Rittikrai, both of which worked with Tony Jaa in the film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. What’s strange, however, is that you wouldn’t be able to tell that both of these films shared a director and choreographer. While Ong-Bak had some spectacular and hard-hitting action, Chocolate feels neutered by comparison. Ong-Bak may have had some ridiculous setups and was at times cartoonishly over the top with its violence and martial arts, but there was real talent at the center stage, every stunt and action scene looked real (because it was), and it looked like it REALLY hurt! Chocolate has some decent choreography, but it looks like choreography. Every hit feels practiced and prepared for, and the sound effects that accompany them are laughably stock, with whooshing and punching that sound like they belong in a video game or an episode of Power Rangers rather than a real fight. Pinkaew and Rittikrai emulated the high standards of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies with Ong-Bak, so I’m let down by the fact that they seemingly loosened those standards for Chocolate. I’m not saying it’s the worst action I’ve ever seen. It has its moments, like Zen’s penultimate fight with a capoeirista, and a pretty entertaining final battle on the side of a building. But these filmmakers set a high bar, and it’s clear to me that Chocolate took the easy route and ducked below it.
I wouldn’t call Chocolate a lousy movie by any means, but it is a disappointing one. It has a clear respect for the genre and the people who made it popular, and it’s an interesting movie to check out if you want to see a martial arts flick with a different focus. But the choreography is a mostly watered-down version of the filmmakers’ previous work, and the film feels tonally at odds with itself when dealing with the subject of autism. However, their attempts to try and make it work is appreciated. One thing’s for sure, though: the next time I see my cousins, I’m showing them Enter the Dragon. Let’s see if we can get somewhere with that.