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24th Oct 08
Introducing the female Tony Jaa... JeeJa Yanin!
It was about twenty years ago when I first discovered Asian cinema and fell in love with the films of Jackie Chan, marvelling at his dizzying mix of martial arts and stunt work. It was like a breath of fresh air to me. Fifteen years later I had that same feeling whilst watching a brand new Thai action film in a Bangkok cinema - the film in question was Ong-bak and it subsequently went on to become the highest grossing film in Thailand that year, met with international acclaim and made a name of its star, Tony Jaa. While we await Jaa's next film (Ong-bak 2, which Jaa is also directing, expected 2009 after a troubled shoot), Ong-bak's director Prachya Pinkaew and producer Panna Rittikrai have a new star to unleash on the world and her name is JeeJa Yanin.
Discovered during auditions for Rittikrai's own Born To Fight movie, the producer was so impressed with Yanin's kicking and jumping style that he decided that she would be perfect for the female lead in Chocolate, a project he was developing with Pinkaew that aimed to showcase the talents of a new young female action star. Under Rittikrai's instruction the former taekwondo champion spent four years honing her fighting skills and preparing for the role of Zen in the film, with the actual production taking an additional two years to complete, each key scene taking two to three months to perfect.
In Chocolate Yanin plays Zen, a cute, introverted young girl who suffers from autism. She lives with her mother Zin (Amara Siripong) a former mistress to a Thai mafia boss (Pongpat Wachirabanjong) known only as Number 8, exiled from the gang after a steamy affair with the handsome Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), a member of a rival Japanese yazuka then forced to flee back to Japan. When Zin contacts Masashi to tell him about their daughter she's cruelly punished by Number 8 and goes into hiding with Zen. Making a new home next to a Muay Thai kickboxing school, Zen spies on the students as they practice and sits indoors watching the films of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa. It soon becomes evident that Zen has an innate ability to mimic her heroes and has super-fast reflexes.
When Zin is diagnosed with cancer the hospital bills soon start piling up and Zen decides that she must act. With her only friend Moom (Tapol Pobwandee), a gentle, tubby lad who was similarly bullied, they find Zin's black book of mafia contacts which contains a list of names of people with debts still outstanding. One by one the pair systematically track down each name in the book in order to recover Zin's money, utilising Zen's fighting skills for leverage when, inevitably, resistance is met. Of course, it’s not long before Number 8 gets wind of what's happening and dispatches his minions to destroy Zin and her family once and for all.
Chocolate thus has a pretty simple storyline free from unnecessary subplots which allows the filmmakers to concentrate on the most important thing - JeeJa Yanin and her spectacular physical abilities. Once the set up has been established it really is one fight scene after another, culminating in an extended showdown between all the major players which manages to cram in three set pieces before its eventual conclusion. There's no doubting Yanin's immense talent here; her agility and skill is most impressive as she showcases her own unique style, as she says herself, mixing sword fighting and gymnastics. Whereas the likes of the aforementioned Ong-bak and Born To Fight featured some terrific stunt work, Chocolate is more focused on close-contact martial arts with Yanin kicking and punching her way through the film.
Saving the best for last, the final fight scene takes place on the side of a four storey apartment block as Zen takes on Number 8 and his henchmen up and down the various ledges, balancing on neon signs and swinging across windows. The choreography is simply amazing and it really is one of the most exhilarating fight scenes I've seen in a very long time. Whilst the performers are on wires for their safety, it takes nothing away from the action, which sees everything done for real by the actors without any stunt performers or CGI embellishment. And if you still need any convincing then wait until you see some of the bone-crunching outtakes during the closing credits - all I'm saying is ouch!
With Yanin and the other cast members doing a fine job, it's good to see Prachya Pinkaew flexing his muscles a little too. Each scene has its own distinct look, the slaughterhouse fight bathed appropriately in a red hue, Number 8's lair encased in a warm yellow glow, and the street battle in a cold blue - perhaps he's been taking notes from Zhang Yimou? There are other neat touches too - a short animated sequence as Zen daydreams, and the character’s irrational fear of flies that lends itself to some humorous moments amidst all the mayhem. It's a tight, pacy film, just shy of ninety minutes and all the better for it - a distinct improvement on the rather flabby indulgence of Tom Yum Goong (aka The Warrior King) which Pinkaew also directed.
If you're a fan of martial arts movies then Chocolate is most definitely for you, and again it confirms that Thailand is right at the forefront of exciting action cinema at this moment in time. Yanin, like Tony Jaa before her, certainly has the potential to become a major star but of course that will all depend on what she chooses to do next. If only Pinkaew and Rittikrai could develop a film with Yanin facing off against Jaa, now that really would be a showdown I'd pay to see! Oh, and if you're still wondering about the title? I can only assume it's because Zen has a sweet tooth and we see her eating handfuls of M&Ms in one early scene. They say chocolate rots your teeth - this Chocolate knocks your teeth out! Gobble it up.
Versions Released on 3rd November in the UK by Cine-Asia, the R2 DVD is packed with featurettes, deleted scenes and trailers.