Movie Night: Chocolate (2008)

She’s a special needs girl…with a special need to kick some ass.

I’m not such a big martial arts fan that I was part of the cult audience that brought actors like Jackie Chan or Jet Li to American shores; Thai sensation Tony Jaa hasn’t yet become a big name here like those actors or some of their contemporaries overseas, but I still benefited from someone else putting his Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong/The Protector on Region 1 DVD for me to rent from Netflix. Having been already astonished by Li’s speed and Chan’s ballsy stunts, Muay Boran fighter Jaa’s movies were on another level entirely for the speed and athleticism of their fights (they also feature some of the more peculiar “car” chase sequences I’ve ever seen).

I wasn’t yet diagnosed with autism when I first Chocolate, a new movie with a young female star from the director of some of Tony Jaa’s initial big outings, but its premise seemed interesting: a severely autistic girl born to a Japanese mob captain and an opposing Thai boss’ girlfriend has the ability to learn martial arts through observation. She then uses this ability to collect on her mom’s old mob debts, to pay for the mother’s mounting medical bills. The Thai boss doesn’t like this and sends his gang to put a stop to it, as the Japanese father returns to intervene.

Even at the time I was impressed with how the autism aspect of the story was handled: despite being a big action flick that hinges on its main character’s autism, it doesn’t really feel exploitative. The one exception to this is a “mini-boss” fight toward the end against a character with some unusual motor tics (it’s never addressed in dialogue, but the character is credited as “epileptic boxer”) that gave me the mild sense that I was watching a cockfight.

But good god, the fights are spectacular. The easy summary of this film is “Jackie Chan meets Rain Man,” which does have a nice rhythm to it, but is also just a little too easy. I don’t know if there’s any sort of camera trickery involved, but the fights in this movie and Tony Jaa’s films before it seem to move much faster than most anything I’ve seen out of Chinese or Japanese martial arts cinema. Asian martial arts films do like to push their stars to their limits, and that means they can take a real beating along the way (demonstrated here in a Jackie Chan-style outtake reel in the end credits).

I guess I wouldn’t really know what the Venn diagram between the autism community and martial arts film afficionadoes might look like, but if this sounds up your alley, check out the trailer.

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