Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) has an interest in the imperfect. As a child, his fingers lingered on those things that were broken, be it his toys, the scratches in his school desk or in the physical flaws of others. As an adult and as a Yakuza, he finds himself in Thailand, stepping into the business interests of the Thai mafia and being held at gunpoint. But all that he can see is Zin (Ammara Siripong), the young mistress of the Thai mafia boss, whose beauty is made less than perfect by a small scar over her left eye. Masashi apologises to Number 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) and leaves. That night, Masashi and Zen meet in a restaurant and leave together. They spend the next few weeks together. Zin falls pregnant but Number 8 embarks on a killing spree that all but ends with their deaths. Rather than see her murdered, Masashi leaves Thailand for Japan while Zin leaves the employ of Number 8 for somewhere she can be safe.
Nine months later, Zin gives birth to a young girl who she names Zen (JeeJa Yanin). The years pass and Zin notices something wrong with her daughter. The doctors diagnose her as being on the autistic spectrum and tell Zin that her little girl will need special care. Zin leaves for the country and she watches Zen grows up in a safe house next to a Muay Thai school. As the years pass, Zen's reflexes quicken and she entertains herself by eating M&Ms while memorising the balletic fights of martial arts movies. But when Zin falls ill, Zen and her friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) find a book of her accounts from her days in the Thai mafia. On their scooter, they visit each in turn demanding money for Zin's treatment. But their affairs attract the attention of Number 8, who has never forgotten Zin nor her betrayal of him.
I'll come to the martial arts in time but the first eight minutes of Chocolate are not only worth watching one but several times. They are good enough to stand apart from what follows. Good enough, even, to make for a short film on their own. With little dialogue, director Prachya Pinkaew tells a Romeo And Juliet-styled story of an ill-fated love affair between a Japanese Yakuza and the mistress of a Thai mafia boss. Violent, sexually-charged and with a sense of drama that becomes lost amidst the Muay Thai, it is quite brilliant, with Hiroshi Abe and Ammara Siripong doing an outstanding job of explaining how one left Thailand in shame while the other fell from grace, leaving the glamourous life of a gangster's mistress for a safe but rundown house outside of the city. In a genre beset with revenge, Chocolate becomes more about love, that of Zin for her daughter and no matter how many years have passed since their last sight of one another and how far apart they are, Masashi for Zin.
However, eleven minutes into the film and Zen is grown-up and part of a act in which Moom throws tennis balls at her, which, her reflexes sharpened like those of a cat, Zin catches safely. A gang of thugs spoil the fun by throwing a switchblade at Zin but recalling the martial arts skills of Bruce Lee (and others), she dispatches them swiftly and without fuss. Those long years spent practising Muay Thai and memorising the fights of the movies have left the autistic Zen able to deal with any troubles that life throws at her, knives included. It is here that Chocolate becomes less about the drama, although it does have that, and more about the martial arts, which are impressive indeed.
In terms of technique, JeeJa Yanin is quite someone to watch but some of her moves don't have the same precision to them as, say, Tony Jaa's. This may be deliberate, what with Zen only memorising her techniques off television, but some of the more extravagant kicks barely seem to land at all. Or, if they do, there's certainly not enough power in them to send the villains flying in the manner that they do. At times, Prachya Pinkaew exploits the comedy in this, with Yanin mimicking not only Bruce Lee's stance but also his distinct cries. At other times, Zen opts for Jackie Chan's way with props, be it a staff, butchers knives or a scabbard. And in a grainy flashback, Tony Jaa appears to give Yanin inspiration to get up and keep on fighting. There are three main fights before the finale, one each as Zen and Moom visit those who owed Zin money. One takes place in an ice factory, another in a warehouse but the very best comes with Zen calling on a butcher for what he owes her mother. In a deep red, Zen utilises whatever comes to hand to get her money. It's spoiled somewhat by the digital effects but Zen's martial arts in what is a very enclosed space are outstanding.
In terms of drama, though, I felt that this middle part of the film dragged. The opening is stunning while the return of Masashi for the finale is no less so. There is a sword fight that's not dissimilar to that in the House Of Blue Leaves (Kill Bill) but made better because of Masashi holding on to the limp body of his beloved Zin even as Number 8's goons charge him. Zen takes to the roof and to a fire escape on the outside of the building, using not only her own body but the windows, stairs and the long drop to the street against those challenging her. Still, I'm probably at odds with this film, which has been developed to make JeeJa Yanin an action movie star, but I would like to see much more of Hiroshi Abe as Masashi. We do see very little of him but, even then, he's given such a character that's rare in a genre that's driven more by revenge or pride than by any other emotion. Masashi's actions are driven only by love and by his attraction to the imperfect. That alone makes him a lot more interesting than most of those who star in martial arts movies and while we'll doubtless see much more of JeeJa Yanin, more of Hiroshi Abe as Masashi wouldn't go amiss either.
Chocolate does look fine for the most part. There is one moment when it looks awful, appearing beset with faults with the source print, but it turns out, when one notices the buzzing on the soundtrack, that these are actually black spots added in post-production to represent the flies that so spook Zen. Clearly, the likes of ILM were not involved and it may have been that Prachya Pinkaew and company simply scratched them onto the print with the end of a knife but they are a low point in a film that's usually pretty good. Much like the movie itself, the best-looking parts of the film come with Chocolate's opening and finale but the entire film is sharp, clean and does well by. Colour is particularly good, not least in the sword fight and in the slaughterhouse, but it's the shame of Chocolate that it so rarely shows it off.
Chocolate comes with both Thai DD2.0 and DD5.1 soundtracks and with English subtitles. It is the surround track that sounds the better of the two, using the rear speakers to involve the viewer in the action. The DD2.0 sounds a little flatter but neither soundtrack shames the film. The dialogue, if you can understand Thai, is clean and does well while the action fair zips along. The subtitles, barring the occasional grammatical error, though who am I to talk, are fine. Although, without any actual understanding of Thai, I'm only assuming they are accurate.
Breaking The Mould (13m46s): "I don't believe you've seen autism and action in the same movie!" Prachya Pinkaew could well be right in that and in this short interview he goes on to describe the reasons behind casting a female actress in his following up Ong-Bak and Warrior King but never explains why autism featured in this film. JeeJa Yanin is only one of the actors also interviewed but, for the most part, the interviews aren't that interesting and don't feature much more than the actors talking about their characters.
Step By Step (10m47s): There are some terrific fights in Chocolate and while this does feature some of them as clips, it's mostly interviews to explain how the cast prepared for the fights and how they were coordinated on the set. Still, no matter what Panna Rittikrai might say about keeping it real, it's still all movie magic and while there are glimpses of fights, these are, more often than not, cut short by their quick editing.
A Star Is Born (5m36s): Using behind the scenes footage of the actors preparing for their fight scenes, this is more concerned with JeeJa enjoying a starring role in a movie and how she was cast in the film as well as how much more training was needed before she could actually feature in it.
Fighting Talent (7m02s): Keeping going through these features, there is a lot of repetition, with this one going back to showing off Tony Jaa before going on to describe the casting of JeeJa yet again. Much of the same footage from previous features are included here although, by this stage, what you don't know about JeeJa clearly isn't worth knowing.
The Stars Of Chocolate (7m02s): This goes back to those same interviews in Breaking The Mould in which the actors describe their characters while Prachya Pinkaew does the same for the plotting. It's not a bad set of interviews in that it finally moves on from just JeeJa Yanin but not by much
Real Fighters (4m07s): This feature describes those fighters in the film, be they Muay Thai world champions or whatnot, who star in the impressive fight scenes in Chocolate. There isn't so much variation in the fight scenes in this as there were in Warrior King, where many more styles were incorporated, but not bad nonetheless. The pity of it, though, is that the sword fight, which is a highlight, is barely mentioned.
There are also a selection of six Deleted Scenes, the longest of which lasts for a little over five minutes with most of the others coming in at less than ninety seconds. Outtakes and Highlights features five of the fights, mixing behind-the-scenes footage with very poor-quality versions of what we see in the finished film while Training Workshop has been included to show what happened before the cameras started rolling on the film. Finally, there is a Trailer Gallery of two trailers and four TV Spots and an Easter Egg in the chapter selection menu in which the breakdancing fighter showing off his skills. There is also a selection of trailers for other Cine Asia releases.