Monday, February 20, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #33 - Chocolate (2008, dir. Prachya Pinkaew)

Let me tell those of you who aren’t already fans a secret about martial arts films – the appeal does not really lie in the stories, which is what a lot of people (often rightly) key in on as arbitrary, or even silly, it’s in the choreography. It’s in the way the filmmakers use the camera to frame and track the movement of the performers, in a manner not unlike the best movie musicals. The plot itself is primarily a reason to maneuver the characters into place – not that it’s without any merit, but in typical action film form it’s there mainly to move us from action set piece to set piece. And these set pieces are cinema worth seeing for anyone interested in watching the sort of choreography of movement of actors and camera that I mention above.
For starters, let’s talk about the plot and get that out of the way. It centers on a woman, Zin (Ammara Siripong) who used to be involved with the criminal underworld of Bangkok, hanging around a gangster, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) who becomes jealous of her when she leaves him to become romantically involved with a Japanese gangster, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). No. 8 orders the two to separate and never see each other again, Masashi returning to Japan, Zin banished to a poor neighborhood with her autistic daughter Zen (JeeJa Yanin). When Zin tries to contact Masashi, No.8 punishes her for her transgression, which fixes him as an enemy in her daughter’s mind. Flash forward to Zen as an older girl, watching the martial arts studio next door (plus an endless succession of kung fu films) and absorbing and imitating their work. Flash forward again to Zen as a teenager, with her mother now poor, sick, in a hospital and in need of serious professional care and medicine but unable to pay. Enter Zen’s friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), who uses her martial arts skills to busk and make money in front of crowds until he happens upon a book listing Zin’s gangster debts that she’s unwilling to collect on her own. We’re now about a half hour into the film, with a small taste of Zen’s martial arts prowess having been displayed, and the remaining hour-plus is largely dedicated to the tightly choreographed fighting that is the real reason to watch the film.
Zen and Moom go to collect from old gangsters to pay for Zin’s medical bills, with Zen’s autistic singularity of mind focused only on getting the money to help her mom. And when she enters a lair of criminals in an ice factory, a direct homage to Bruce Lee in The Big Boss (AKA Fists of Fury), we know from having seen Zen’s skills who’s going to come out on top, no matter how the odds are stacked. But it’s the movement, the physical prowess, the manipulation of props on the set, and, oh yes, the humor, can’t forget the humor, that makes the scene more than just a quick fight scene or a Lee rip-off. It’s elevated by these elements and one more beyond. Not only is the purely physical grace of actress JeeJa Yanin something wonderful to watch (and it’s time here for a special nod to stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai who helped create all the fight scenes with director and actors), but it’s also worth noting that where many martial arts films use wires or computer graphics to make their actors fly and make impossible stunts happen on screen, here there are no wires and no CGI effects, so when Yanin leaps over a hallway and lands in a splits on top of a row of lockers, it’s something she’s actually done, and for me a scene like this is as entertaining and impressive as synchronized movements of Gene Kelly with Cyd Charisse or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s also hugely entertaining to watch her acting performance, a twitchy combination of Bruce Lee as Rain Man, constantly absorbing new information, new fighting styles and incorporating them into her repertoire in which she’s always making unexpected moves, kicking where a punch is expected, falling back when she’s moving forward. And here it’s time to give a nod to director Prachya Pinkaew (director of the equally enjoyable Ong-Bak). One of his best tricks in the film is to show only enough to make you think a sequence is hitting a dead end, only to whiz the camera back to reveal a new space that expands the area for the movement to take place, thus extending the opportunities for the more of Yanin’s movements, or for a new set of gags that he, Yanin, and Rittikrai have in store.
And back to the plot – Zen collects money in a few terrific fight scenes, but starts to get noticed by the mob, who make their moves. There’s a pause for some plot development to get the characters in place for the inevitable final showdown, a spectacular and constantly changing battle that occupies approximately the last thirty minutes of the film. It should be noted, incidentally, that the fight scenes are of increasing levels of violence, for those who are sensitive to such things. For those who can simply tune in on the remarkable movement not just of our lead actress, but of the challengers who have to coordinate their often painful-looking falls around her punches and kicks, those who can enjoy the incredible craft that goes into telling this story that could be a fairly generic revenge fantasy if it didn’t have such unique touches, this is one of the best films of its type in the last decade. Enjoy.
- Patrick Brown

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