Billed as the female Tony Jaa, JeeJa Yanin has a lofty reputation to uphold in her debut movie – especially as women rarely given such top billing in martial arts movies. Jaa made an instant impact on the scene with breathtaking fight sequences in Ong Bak, so Yanin would hope to achieve a similar feat if such a comparison is to be believed. Jaa is famed for his speed, agility and versatile fighting style, which, combined with his dedication to performing his own stunts, is a winning combination for fight fans. The director who helped shoot him to fame, Prachya Pinkaew, has taken Yanin under his wing to capture her skills on camera, and Chocolate proves she is not just riding the wave of a publicity campaign: it will win her instant fans eager to see more of the upcoming talent thanks to spectacular action from start to finish.
Yanin plays Zen, a young autistic girl who loves the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and, of course, Tony Jaa. Her avid watching of them defeating the seemingly endless supply of bad guys has enabled her to mimic their styles and develop her own – just in time to come to the rescue of her family’s finances. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, the only way to pay for the medical treatment she needs is for Zen to team up with best friend Mangmoom and call in a long line of debts from her mother’s days as the head of a mafia clan. The aggrieved gangsters and killers are unwilling to pay up without a fight, but Zen is more than capable of forcing their hands. Of course, it’s all really an excuse to let Yanin showboat, and, while a little lacking in experience, she willingly despatches all-comers with many-a swift elbow to the face or knee to the head.
Introducing any new martial artist has to be done in attention-grabbing style, and Pinkaew’s unique Thai style of filmmaking is ideal. Eschewing stunt doubles, special effects and camera trickery in favour of full-on contact combat means there is a brutal reality to the action set pieces never seen in Western imitations. Yanin spent several years under the tutelage of Jaa’s stunt co-ordinator on Ong Bak and Warrior King, Panna Rittikrai, so Pinkaew rarely wastes a minute of her screen time not kicking the life out of everyone she comes across. There’s a homage to Bruce Lee’s icehouse fight in The Big Boss, a brawl in a dojo akin to setting of The Matrix training sessions between Neo and Morpheus, spikes piercing bodies in a meat factory and a spectacular climax high above the streets on window sills, ledges and neon signs. Fight fans can be few complaints about the variety, they might want to see a little more from the star to be entirely convinced though.
Yanin’s slight frame may well mean she can be fast and agile like Jaa, however she lacks his on-screen confidence and needs to do more convincing she has the power to match. At times her moves are stilted and in the ice block battle many of her combatants fall down too easily. Her bendy, athletic natures comes into full effect during the extended end fight sequence, and there is every indication this would be the level she would pick up from on her next movie. Chocolate shows it’s only a matter of Yanin gaining experience to really live up to the reputation already put on her shoulders, but with aging martial arts icons Jet Li and Jackie Chan well past their best, she has an opportunity to stamp some authority on the genre. If anyone doubts her commitment to Pinkaew’s authentic fighting style, the end credits sequence shows just how painful this kind of filmmaking can be and Yanin suffers as much as any of her no-name victims.
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