At this point, it's not worth bemoaning the fact that a film like Chocolate received a very slim-to-none theater run while variations on the Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass Friday night action formula continually dominates three screens on an opening weekend. Well, you're right, look at that, I am bemoaning.... bemoaning away! And so be it. I don't mind being redundant in favor of a film that should, by all rights, be taking up endcap space in $14.99 cardboard displays instead of the rotten Quantum of Solace that oozed out onto shelves last week. You can have your squished bean face of a false hero in Daniel Craig, I'll side up with Yanin Vismistananda and her clipped-banged youthful heroism any day.
Vismistananda plays Zen, a mentally disabled child/teen (seemingly Autistic), conceived from a forbidden affair between a man in the yakuza and a woman in a local Thai gang. Her mother must raise her alone when her father is exiled back to Japan in an agreement to spare her mother's life. Zen is loved, but, because of her anti-social condition, she is largely isolated from the outside world, save for one chubby little poof of a friend, Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee), who is an outcast himself for reasons of flubbiness and clumsiness. As Zen grows into her teens, she picks up martial arts skills through TV programs and video games. Director Prachya Pinkaew shoots Zen in mild close-ups, following her eyes as they are imprinted with ever pixelated movements on screen.
Chocolate has a bare bones story, weak character development, and below-average acting, but to swing from those hang-ups would be to miss the point entirely. In a textbox message preceding any imagery, Pinkaew displays the following words:
"This film is dedicated to children. Children who are special. I want to show them the beauty that exists in movement."
That is taken from rough memory, and doesn't do justice to the extent of what Pinkaew said, but the gist of what he's telling us is that Chocolate will be a film about a girl who finds freedom and expression through the martially artful control of her body and thus asserts herself in a society that otherwise considers her a weaker member. In one particularly striking sequence, Zen battles a young man with tourette's syndrome. Not only does Pinkaew avoid exploiting the man's condition, he elevates his tics into a higher form of fighting. Further, the powerful encounter between the two folds out like a barbaric liberation from their physical setbacks. Forget Forrest Gump sprinting through those leg braces, these two disabled fighters are winged spirits having it out above the clouds.
The purpose for Zen's ass-kicking throughout Chocolate is to collect payment owed her mother. Her mother is a former ass-kicker herself, but is sick with cancer and cannot physically stand-up for what is rightfully hers. To collect, Zen must run through a gauntlet of no-use thugs that stand in her way at an ice factory, a slaughter house, and the sides of a tenement building. This clever construction of Pinkaew's - placing Zen in environments that symbolize the essential elements of existence (water, food, and shelter) - adds another meaningful layer to a film that communicates to us through the most basic of structures.
And yet, after watching this movie, I don't know why it's called Chocolate. Perhaps something was lost in translation, perhaps I missed the obvious, or perhaps it's just plain descriptor for what Pinkaew presented to us: a sweet solution coming from a bitter source that, when used appropriately, can elevate the senses to extraordinary heights.