I recently had the opportunity to watch the Thai film Chocolate (a. k. a. Zen, Warrior Within), a movie which is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most repugnant concepts to come out of Easter cinema. The basic premise that so offends people is that there is a retarded girl who somehow has tremendous skills with martial arts, which she uses to beat up her ex-criminal mother’s enemies, culminating in a fight with said enemies’ secret weapon: another retard! Quite frankly, after having watched the film, I have to say that it is a martial arts masterpiece with an engaging story, and I am quite frankly offended by people who are offended by it.
WARNING! Major SPOILERS follow the cut.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: Zen, the main character, is not retarded. She is autistic. There is a HUGE difference, and anyone who can’t tell the difference should do at least a little research. It is true that autism is often accompanied by retardation, but there is a very broad spectrum of disorders classified under the umbrella of “autism,” and many (Asperger’s disease is probably the most well-known example, although claims of correlation between Asperger’s and lack of retardation has come under scrutiny of late) are a form of what is known as high-functioning autism. Although the exact definition of high-functioning autism has not been entirely settled, a decent layman’s definition would be “autism that is not accompanied by any other mental impairment.”
Now, Zen is certainly not to be taken to be a typical example of an autistic child, far from it. However, neither is it entirely unheard-of for one of the most common symptoms of autism—an OCD-like need to perform repetitive tasks in patterns—to result in the autistic person acquiring a high level of skill in whatever repetitive task they perfer to perform, particularly in high-functioning autistics. This isn’t even the first time a film has been made on the subject. Obviously, like Rain Man, Chocolate is not a perfect depiction of autism, but it is most certainly a possible one, and anyone who has known an autistic person will recognize, even without subtitles, that that is Zen’s condition. I won’t claim that she is a genius, but she is certainly not clinically retarded, and I would even go so far as to say she should probably be classified as high-funtioning autistic.
With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about the movie in a broader sense. It was co-produced by Sukanya Vongsthapat and both co-produced and directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who also directed the Tony Jaa vehicles Ong Bak (Thai Warrior in the US) and Tom Yum Goong (The Protector in the US), and his experience in martial arts cinema shines through, as well as his love of the history of the genre, all of which are further enhanced by the inclusion of stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai, who also previously worked on Tony Jaa’s films and, in fact, mentored Jaa himself. The martial arts scenes are superb, as are the scenes foreshadowing Zen’s prowess, including both her imitation of the muay thai students next door, her finely-honed kinesthetic sense allowing her to catch balls thrown at her without looking (obviously a talent that is unrelated to her autism, but which enhances the skills she happened to pick up because of it), and finally her casual takedown of some local toughs who were harassing her and her friend Moom. The fight scenes are all spectacularly choreographed, and the fighting style in each is reminiscent of one of Pinkaew’s favorite movie martial artists.
If you are a fan of movie effects and stunts, you might well, like me, spend much of the film wondering how they managed to time the shots, sound effects, and motions so perfectly as to make such realistic fights, right up until the reel in the middle of the credits where they show that the only way to do many of the “stunts” was just to do them. The reel features several shots of the actors being injured in the process of filming the amazing fight scenes (including one that I had particularly wondered about, when Zen stomps two men through some wooden slats, from whence they fall, bounce off a concrete ledge, and finally hit the pavement three stories below; all three actors were injured in that one, which happened exactly as shown in the film, except actress Yanin Vismistananda was in no condition to keep stalking after the villain aftewards). After watching that, you realize that when there is a quick cut in a fight, it is less likely to have been done to capture the perfect shot than because a character who was supposed to get right back up was played by an actor who was just knocked out.
The story itself is also a good one. The basic plot is that Zin, a member of a somewhat flamboyant gang, falls in love with a Yakuza captain named Masashi. Her boss, feeling betrayed, forbids them from seeing each other, so she tells Masashi that he has to go back to Japan. When she eventually gives birth to her and Masashi’s child, she writes a letter to tell him, but her old boss, Number 8, finds out and cuts off her toe as a warning that he was serious about her not contacting Masashi. Zin’s daughter, Zen, is autistic, and finds herself imitating the repetitive movements of the muay thai academy next door, and also the similar movements of movie martial artists. (The film only shows Tony Jaa movies, probably because they were produced by the same company and didn’t need to pay any licensing fees, but as I will explain later, it is obvious that she has watched some Hong Kong flicks as well.) When Zin is diagnosed with cancer, Zen’s friend Moom tries various schemes to make some money, none of which are enough until he happens to stumble across an old account book from Zin’s gangster days. It turns out that she left the business rather suddenly, leaving some people probably faint with relief that the loan shark never came back for the money. With Zen as his enforcer, Moom goes after the money in an interesting turn on a more classic plot: Here, the debtors have had time to become wealthy off the loan shark’s initial investment, all of them owners of obviously successful businesses, and in the meantime have become callous enough to become the villains of the piece, to poor Moom trying to collect money for his friend’s chemo treatments and Zen, barely understanding it all, knowing only that these people have money, and she needs money for her mother. This leads to a series of fights in the styles of different movie martial artists.
Of course, a group of wealthy men who have already been known to go to gangs for help aren’t going to sit idly by, and they hire Number 8 to take Moom. Zin, worried about their safety when she discovers how Moom has been paying for her treatments, gives him a letter to send to Masashi, in the hopes that he will be able to protect them. Unfortunately, Moom is on his way to mail the letter when Number 8 catches up with him, and he decides that the letter ought to be sent anyway to lure Masashi back to Thailand, so he can get revenge on all of these annoying pests. When Zin and Zen go to get Moom back, Number 8 manages to get Zin away, leading to the badass scene when Masashi, played by Japanese uber-star Abe Hiroshi, is smart enough to bring a gun to a sword fight and empties a pistol into 8’s goons before grabbing a sword and going to town. He is eventually overwhelmed, by which time Zen has gotten pissed enough at her mother’s treatment (keep in mind, she doesn’t know Masashi from Adam at this point) to go after the thugs. There is a pause in here for her to fight another autistic (apparently low-functioning, as this spastic capoeira variant is all he is capable of in life). This is the point that everyone who managed to get through the film watching a “retard” martial artist calls foul. “Another retard?” they cry. “This is not only stretching possibility, it is insulting! Retard fight! You want us to watch a retard fight!”
I will take this moment to remind you that Zen is not retarded, but autistic. Furthermore, this opponent is actually a good example of a low-functioning autistic. He can’t read movements like Zen can. He can’t do much of anything but lash out when someone approaches him, using the patterns he has learned obsessively. People call this the climax of the movie, but I can only imagine that anyone who says that stopped watching halfway through. This scene seems to me to have been put in precisely to show that Zen is not retarded. Unlike this entirely broken person, she is capable of thinking, reasoning, and adapting. His movements are unlike any she has seen before, and so he quickly knocks her down. However, she has only to watch him move for a minute before she figures out that he has only a limited number of patterns, and she quickly takes him out with only a feint. Then the climax begins.
Zen picks up a couple of discarded scabbards and advances coldly on Number 8 and his goons, taking them out with brutal efficiency. She follows Number 8 to the roof, where the real dragons are waiting: a trio of actual martial artists, including one big guy who just won’t stay down. In fact, this is the guy who earlier kept Zen down long enough for Number 8 to take Zin. Zen somehow manages to balance fighting these three with fighting another horde of faceless goons and relentlessly pursuing Number 8, who is obviously not the sort to lead from the front. In a spectacular fight scene bouncing between the side of an overpass and the ledges of a nearby building, and mixing all of the martial arts styles Zen has used throughout the movie, Zen finally manages to take down Number 8. Then the film can finally wind down. Zen returns to the roof, where Moom is sitting in a corner trying not to cry. She kneels down next to her mother and cries until Masashi stumbles onto the roof, kneels down next to the body of his dead love and hugs the child he has not yet had the chance to know.
This movie was awesome. Plain and simple. The acting by Abe Hiroshi is every bit as good as you would expect, and Pongpat Wachirabunjong is a wonderfully cold and flamboyant villain. Ammara Siripong as Zin and Taphon Phopwandee as Moom were also spot on for their characters. Perhaps most surprisingly, first-time actress Yanin Vismitananda is wonderful as the childlike autistic martial artist, Zen. Possibly even more impressive is her imitation of muay thai and two styles of kung fu, given that, yes, she is a third-degree black belt… in tae kwon do.
This is a martial arts flick, and I can’t in good conscience not discuss the fight scenes. The first couple are silly little things without any real style, just to show that Zen can kick ass without really thinking about it. She casually takes Moom down once when he is about to smack her upside the head, and she knocks down a small gang of local toughs who were harassing her and Moom during one of their attempts to make money before they started going after old debts. Then Moom gets laughed at and kicked out of an ice factory whose owner was first on Zin’s debt list. After thinking for a while about how they had money, and she needed money, and they had been assholes, she goes back that night and asks for the money. The owner tells his employees to kick her out, and she opens up a Bruce Lee-style can of whoopass on them, complete with Enter the Dragon style screeches and whoops. This is probably the weakest scene, due to the fact that Yanin Vismitananda cannot imitate Bruce Lee’s fighting style very well, and her whoops are not very Bruce Lee-like, but that can be forgiven because Bruce Lee was all about avoiding falling into patterns, while her own skill is based upon following patterns, and at least her war cries are enthusiastic.
The next major fight scene takes place at a shipping company, where the owner starts off seeming sympathetic before tossing his bag of money to an employee and instructing them to play keep-away with Moom. Zen pulls off a beautiful imitation of Jackie Chan’s comedic fighting style, with silly feints, letting opponents hit each other, slipping between railings, and even stuffing a couple of her opponents into lockers. (This is also the scene of a couple of the major injuries on-set, as once Vismitananda got clocked with a hammer-kick that was supposed to miss Zen, and another actor got slammed head-first into a railing.) Moom even gets a few comedic sidekick assists, dropping a pile of boxes on one group, and being entirely missed by another set as he hides between boxes.
The final fight in the ramp-up set of the debt collections takes place at a meat distributor. At first, Zen cannot bring herself to fight these goons because she is deathly afraid of flies (this is actually established earlier in the movie), which swarm all over the place, but she later shows up with a screen mask, trying to psych herself up to go in anyway. Moom suddenly shows up armed with a bug-zapper racket, and the fight is on! This time Zen is far more brutal, possibly in response to the fly situation, possibly because these guys are coming at her with butcher knives. Either way, she lays into them with muay thai, breaking bones à la Tony Jaa. There is even a moment about two thirds of the way through the fight where you can see her switching from Tom Yum Goong to the more brutal Ong Bak (or possibly from earlier silly roller blade fight Tom Yum Goong to the later, “You killed my elephant!” Tom Yum Goong).
This paragraph will detail the less major, although no less important to the plot, fights. The movie retains some sense of realism in that when Zen finally encounters real martial artists among Number 8’s goons, she is simply unable to deal with them at first. One of them takes her down and, although he is unable to keep her down, he is certainly a match for her, and sufficient to keep her distracted while Number 8 takes her mother. I should mention that Zin also puts up a pretty good fight. She’s not able to avoid becoming the damsel in distress, but given that she’s been on chemo long enough to have lost all of her hair at this point, I’d say that fighting back at all is pretty impressive. Just before all of this happens, Masashi has a subordinate check Zin and Zen’s house. While he is there, some of Number 8’s assistant Priscilla’s employees (Priscilla, played by Dechawut Chuntakar, and her gang are all transsexuals, apparently a theme in Pinkaew’s movies) show up, and he hides, quickly popping up to shoot them all when he has heard enough to have some idea of their plans. He is in the middle of calling Masashi when Priscilla shows up and shoots him, which is what prompts Masashi to request time off from the Yakuza to visit Thailand. (His bosses don’t look happy, but given what I know of the Yakuza, I don’t think they’d truly begrudge him avenging a fallen agent, although they might disapprove of him losing the agent in the first place on a personal errand.) The fight with the autistic guy… happens. It’s short, and I explained it more than it really deserves above. Concentrate on the rest of this movie, people!
Abe Hiroshi is in fine form, starting his fight against 8’s goons by emptying a clip into them, as I said before, before grabbing a sword because there were too many coming at him too fast for him to have time to reload. His swordplay is skilled, reminiscent of Kill Bill, but not quite as Mary-Sue-ish, so he does get horribly injured in his fight, due to sheer numbers, and Number 8 is eventually able to stab him in the back, the blow softened, but not entirely deflected, by Zin throwing herself between Masashi and the blade. It is right about at this point that Zen stands up and takes a pair of discarded scabbards to take on 8’s crew. She flat out kills several with blows straight to the throat, before following 8 to the roof and encountering his martial artist trio. These she fights with a combination of her Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa styles, both taking and giving more punishment than is reasonable, as is to be expected in the climax of a martial arts flick. (In particular, Zen broke that girl’s arm at least twice.) In an attempt to get away from her, Number 8 leaps to the edge of a nearby overpass, then back to the ledge of the building’s fourth floor by way of some convenient signs. Zen follows, and the big martial artist pursues her.
What follows is a brutal sequence in which Zen takes advantage of her environment in ways reminiscent of both Jackie Chan movies and Tom Yum Goong to take out the goons that keep trying to climb out of the windows after her, dropping them one by one to the pavement below, often bouncing them off the concrete ledge below first. (Several of these resulted in real-life hospitalizations.) At one point, she manages to get two guys lying on top of some slats providing a bridge from one ledge to the next, and she stomps on their backs to propel them through to the ground. (This resulted in severe injuries to both extras, as well as to Vismitananda’s legs.) She also pulls a humorous takedown on the big martial artist by leaping back to the overpass, and then kicking him in the face when he tries to follow, causing him to fall instead. Finally, she catches up with Number 8 and hurls him to the ground, bouncing him off both a metal sign and the concrete ledge. This kills the character and also resulted in the most severe on-set injuries to the actor.
What can I really say about this movie? The fight scenes were the best I’ve seen in years, the acting was excellent, the story was pretty good, with some twists on a couple of tired clichés, and it was altogether an enjoyable ride. The writing and acting for Zen’s autism was also pretty good. Would I recommend this film to someone who just discovered their child was autistic or someone who wants to learn more about the condition? No, certainly not. But it does treat the subject with a fair amount of the respect it deserves, and the point of the film is fairly obviously that someone with autism can survive in the real world, or even the more-brutal martial arts film equivalent. This film is definitely staying in my library. “Retard fight,” indeed! Retards.[*]
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* I really shouldn’t have to explain this, but I know someone’s not going to get it and call me a hypocrite. I’m insulting people who shout “Retard fight!” at that one scene by calling them retards in the colloquial sense (which is to say, “idiots”). I realize that many people in the psychological profession or who know people who are clinically retarded consider this an insulting (to the clinically retarded) use of the word, but it does nevertheless have that colloquial use. I hope that by bringing the conversation down to the level of the people who cannot see that Zen is not clinically retarded I will get them to understand that I consider them worthy of insult.
Chocolate and all the characters and situations contained therein ©Prachya Pinkaew & Sukanya Vongsthapat. Used without permission for review purposes. No profit is made, no money is requested, and no infringement is intended.
“Chocolate Review” by Wholly Crap Productions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, © October 2011; questions concerning copyright as pertains to the original work and permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you believe that work to which you own the copyright is being used in a way that infringes on your copyright, please send an email with credentials stating which pages you find offensive, and they will be taken down until an agreement can be reached, or permanently if no agreement can be reached.