Film Review: Chocolate

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HONG KONG -- After putting Thai martial arts films on the world map with "Ong Bak," followed by the tamer "Tom Yum Goong," director Prachya Pinkaew gives a tasty twist to the genre with "Chocolate," a Thai action version of "Rain Man" featuring a teenage autistic heroine who's a Muay Thai prodigy. Bursting with topsy-turvy action and the corniest of camp, "Chocolate" is as energy boosting as a late-night Mars bar.

The Sahamongkol film opened wide across Asia to favorable response. Following its stateside release, it should enjoy a long DVD shelf life.

There is no question that "Chocolate's" calling card is 25-year-old talent Jija Yanin Vismitananda. She spent more than four years training to perform her own stunts and it shows. When she glides under a coffee table or slides through a shelf in what looks like a continuous take, she generates a demented ferocity that is awe-inspiring, yet her childlike face conveys tenderness missing from the hard machismo of Tony Jaa or Jackie Chan.

The script, strewn with wild improbabilities and soapy melodrama, is beyond ridiculous. However, like Pinkaew's last two films, it carries its own internal logic as the protagonist is driven by a single-minded impulse that sweeps the audience along with propulsive vigor.

Zen (Jija Yanin) is the autistic daughter of Japanese yakuza Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and Zin (Ammara Siripong), the ex-mistress of a crime kingpin. The first hour struggles to extract goofy humor from Zen's antics -- how, as a toddler, she catches flying objects faster than Harry Potter can catch a snitch on his broom, but turns mental at the sight of Smarties. In a gesture of blatant product placement and self-parody, Zen's hidden talent is revealed when, after compulsive viewings of "Ong Bak," she instantly fights like the film's hero Jaa.

Thankfully, the pace suddenly surges when, to pay for Zin's cancer treatment, Zen goes around collecting unpaid debts from Zin's mafia contacts -- the pretext for a lineup of fight scenes that get progressively more elaborate without losing their bone-fracturing realism (as proven by outtakes showing excruciating injuries of cast and stunt crew.)

A slippery combat among ice blocks pays tribute to the ice factory scene in Bruce Lee's "The Big Boss" (shot in Thailand), while in an abattoir, props like meat hooks and butchers' knives are employed to gob-smacking effect. The final battle royale is a campy travesty of "Kill Bill" in which Zen rips through a phalanx of enemies fusing an innovative mix of Muay Thai and capoeira styles with her own weird brand of autistic (more like epileptic) frenzy.

Opens: Friday, Feb. 6 (Magnet Releasing and Sahamongkol Film International).

Production: Baa-Ram-Ewe
Cast: Jija Yanin Vismitananda, Ammara Siripong, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Yanin Mitananda
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Screenwriters: Napalee Sakweerakul and Matthew Chookiat Sakveerakul.
Executive Producer: Somsak Techaratanaprasert
Producers: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai, Sukanya Vongsthapat
Director of photography: Decha Seemantra
Art director: Nopporn Kirdsilpa
Action supervisor: Panna Rittikrai
Music: Giant Ape
Costume designer: Ekasit Meepraseartsagool
Editor: Rashane Limtrakul and Prapob Suraskulwat
Sales: Sahamongkol Film International/Magnolia Pictures (USA)
Rated R, 89 minutes