Get your kicks.
The movie starts with a man speaking in Japanese…eh? Is this the right movie? Well, anyways, he is talking about a kid named Masashi, who loves imperfections, because they induce his curiosity to seek answers, especially when the search leads him down a dangerous path.
Flashforward to adult Masashi at as an adult. He is at a table with a gun pointed at his head, sitting across from a woman with a gun pointed at her head. Apparently, members of his Yakuza family had been doing operations in a Thai gang’s territory without permission and now the two groups are…uh…negotiating their business arrangement.
Masashi pays off the Thai gang and promises never to invade their turf again. The Thai boss, No. 8, says that he never wants to see Masashi again. That would be that, except for one problem. Masashi finds himself smitten with Zin, the woman across the table.
Zin keeps track of debts that people owe to No. 8, and is around when the gang roughs them up. But on her free time? She is with Masashi. When No. 8 finds out about the two of them, he attacks Masashi and his gang. Zin intervenes before No. 8 can kill Masashi. No. 8 says that he does not want to see her again either, and then deliberately shoots himself in the foot.
So, Zin is out of the Thai gang, but she is not going to be part of the Yakuza either. Though pregnant with Musashi’s child, she breaks off the relationship and tells him to go back to Japan. She goes off to find a new home.
Zin gives birth to Zen and has to raise her on her own. At some point, she takes Zen to a doctor, who says that she has problems with her brain development. It is not an emergency, but she will need special care. It does seem like young Zen tends to just sit around and stare passively at nothing. Swallowing a fly gives her a fear of flies. But she loves eating chocolate, specifically, little M&M-like pellets.
One day, Zin writes to Musashi to tell him about their daughter. Unfortunately, the Thai gang find out about the letter. Number 8 pays Zin a visit and cuts off her toe in front of Zen.
Zin has to move again, this time, to a house next to a Muay Thai gym. Zen takes notice of the boys training and tries to emulate them by kicking one of the house’s wooden posts. This results in her leg getting injured, so Zin puts quilts around the post.
One evening, Zin sees a boy around Zen’s age being bullied by a group of other boys. She invites the boy to her house where he and Zen watch martial arts movies. The boy, Moom, learns that, while Zen has trouble speaking in full sentences or understanding the nuances of certain situations, she has excellent hearing, especially when it comes to things approaching her. That hearing is paired with excellent reflexes, meaning that she can catch anything.
Fast forward several years and Moom has turned Zen into a street performer, catching balls that audience members throw at her while he hypes her up and collects money. There is a pretty big crowd and things are going well until some ruffian throws a knife at her. Moom tries to leave with Zen, but the guy gets aggressive. Zen responds by kicking him. When the guy’s friends try to retaliate, she kicks them as well.
Back at home, Moom tries to tell Zen to keep quiet about the fight, and explain that certain objects, like knives, should be dodged instead of caught when thrown. Zin finds out anyways and is upset, but Moom insists that the money that they earned is meant to pay for Zin’s cancer treatment. Oh, right. Zin has cancer…or some sort of sickness that requires a long stay in the hospital and pretty much bedridden when she returns home.
Moom and Zen spend their days and nights doing the ball-catch performance for money, which goes to the treatment. When at home they do…well, nothing, I guess. Zen continues to eat the chocolates and watch martial arts movies…particularly certain bits that she rewinds to over and over. One night, though, Moom finds one of Zin’s old notebooks full of people who had owed her money. With Zin losing her hair and Zen being unable to deal with it, Moom decides to see if he and Zen can get the people in the notebook to give him the money that they owe.
The first client is the owner of an ice factory, who refuses and tells his employees to forcibly escort the two out. Moom yells at him while Zen screams. Zen goes back to the owner and demands the money, but the owner throws his abacus at her face. She grabs it, but the force is enough to break the abacus, so a piece of it still hits her in the face. Moom grabs her and takes her home before things escalate.
Back home, however, something…happens in her brain that convinces her to return to the ice factory to demand the money. The employees handle her roughly and try to throw her out. But thanks to the power of remembering that scene from a martial arts movie, she is able to kick them all to the floor and take the money from the factory owner.
With the use of violence confirmed as a viable option in retrieving the money, Moom and Zen decide to try a different place the next day. Unfortunately, their actions draw the attention of No. 8, the person to whom the people in the notebook had been paying money for protection. With No. 8’s gang already hostile towards Zin and her associates, this new wrinkle sets them on a collision course with Moom and Zen.
Anyone who goes into the movie without knowing what it is about may be a little confused at its trajectory. It starts out as a gangster movie that turns into romance that turns into a type of family drama that eventually turns into a martial arts movie. Is Musashi the protagonist? Musashi and Zin co-protagonists? Just Zin? Nope; it’s the little girl. Anyone who goes into the movie knowing that it is a martial arts movie may find themselves getting antsy and frustrated. It takes nine minutes before the main character even shows up as a baby and she is a little kid for another nine minutes or so. And while there is a fight scene not long afterwards, it takes about 35 minutes into this 93-minute film before the martial arts storyline kicks into gear. And that is after many false starts.
I cannot remember if I felt either the first time that I saw this movie, but I was a little amused at just how long it took until it became a genuine martial arts movie. It was almost as if the movie was low-key trolling the audience. Why so much focus on Zen’s parents? And why make her father a member of the Yakuza in the first place? Well, why not? The scenes of the gang rivalry, the romance, the mother’s illness, all of it is played for maximum melodramatic cheese. Is it effective? Is it necessary? Is it merely a means to pad out the movie to sneak past the 90-minute mark? I don’t know. What it does do…maybe is wind up the audience so that they are ready to explode just when the movie explodes. Because when the fighting starts…it does not stop. Okay, it pauses at times, but it does not stop. It was not going to take breaks for story, which is why most of the story was dumped to the start of the movie. I cannot say for certain, but it seems as if there was a 110-minute version of the movie. That is a lot to have been cut, if that is true. I know that there is footage of a fight scene that did not make it into the movie, but it would be funny if the rest of the cut footage is just more story from the first part of the movie.
Chocolate is the debut film of Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda, though she went by Yanin Mitananda at the time of the movie. I cannot say whether her being new was the reason for holding her back for 18 minutes, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. What was a choice was to not just make her the child of a gangster, but one with intellectual…differences.
The movie does not say it outright, but it is pretty much agreed upon that Zen is on the autism spectrum. It is not particularly subtle with showing it to be a superpower as well as a burden, having her sit around unless she is mimicking the Muay Thai students, being utterly stoic unless she is extremely upset, talking repeatedly in half-sentences, having certain compulsory habits like eating chocolates, and having heightened senses. She could not simply have grown up learning martial arts (Jeeja had started learning taekwondo at 11 to help overcome physical ailments), she had to have learned it through visual osmosis and reflexes that are directly connected to her condition. What this does do is allow for the director of the movie to insert footage from Ong Bak, which he had also directed. I am not entirely sure if Jeeja Yanin and Ong Bak’s Tony Jaa had a connection before this movie was released, but they certainly did afterwards.
It also allows for the character of Zen to blow past the niggling issue that the money that was owed to her mother was actually owed (and perhaps already paid) to her former gangster boss, so that the people in the notebook were under no obligation to pay her. And, also, her mother had worked for a gangster. To be fair, while the movie skips few opportunities to play on the audience’s sympathies for Zen, it does not treat her as a necessarily moral character. She just wants her mother to stop being sick and has been told that that requires money.
I have said before that I am not a martial arts film aficionado, and that has not really changed. So I am not sure how much of this movie is Muay Thai, how much is Taekwondo, and how much is whatever else. I did notice that most of Zen’s fighting moves revolve around kicking. The wide variety of kicks and the variety of contexts that come with the kicks prevent it from being too repetitive, but it is still mostly kicks. That said, that does make it so that the moments where she does a move other than a kick stick out and seem special.
One thing of note that I had not mentioned yet is the prominence of Kathoey. I am not sure what the appropriate terminology English is for them, but I am mostly familiar with the term Ladyboy. There is a group of them working under Number 8., with one of them seeming to be the second-in-command. I cannot say how…respectful the movie is towards them, but given the level of accuracy the movie has in its depiction of autism, I would be skeptical. That they are all villains is not a great sign either. On the other hand, there is little attention drawn to the fact that they are Kathoey and they are not treated with disgust either from the other characters or the movie itself…so, that is something.
Despite, and perhaps due to, some of the puzzling choices that this movie makes, it is a really fun ride. I like it quite a bit.
WTF ASIA 97: Sonatine (Japan: 1993, approx. 94 minutes)
WTF ASIA 98: A Better Tomorrow (Hong Kong: 1986, approx. 96 minutes)