Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Dir. Prachya Pinkaew

Viewed: From the Balcony

With a blood transfused Friday the 13th hacking and slashing its way into the hearts and minds of the populace this past weekend, it was time for many to reconsider the black sheep boy of film -- the slasher movie, but I spent my Friday the 13th taking in a different beast of film -- the martial arts movie. Like the slasher, the martial arts movie got its big push into the mass consciousness in the late 70s/early 80s, in the drive-ins and through indie and low budget productions. Both gained instant appreciation from thrill seeking audiences and were quickly absorbed into the arsenal of the Hollywood studios looking to make big returns off of small investments. While both genres have had their successes and failures, just like anything else, I’ve always appreciated the martial arts movie more.

While there’s no doubt that both genres have had their passionate auteurs over the past 30 years, I’ve always found more inspired ideas, both visual and story-wise, in the martial arts movie. There's a passion behind these films that burns brighter and that sort of effort will always end up on the screen. When looking at the early Hong Kong films, you’re invariably looking at actors play out the characters and events that formed their country’s moral fiber -- the equivalent of our westerns or the stories we were read in school about the Greek gods. Such things are not taken lightly and it’s refreshing to see the determination in everyone involved in these films to capture these characters and events correctly and treat them with the respect they deserve; nevermind the fact that they were making something that would eventually be regarded by some high-minded twat as unimportant b-movie stuff. These kinds of stories (of the wuxia style) soon evolved, or devolved depending on your point of view, as audiences, especially the Americans, began to favor the modern, relatable stories; ones that parallel the westerns that audiences grew up on -- the lone gunman out for revenge and so on. Rather than see their old bedtime stories play out on the screen, we started to see new heroes with fuzzier moral codes begin to take the reins from the old guard.

Recently Thailand and director Prachya Pinkaew have made a name for themselves with martial arts films that show off its homegrown Muay Thai style. It's a martial art that relies more on elbows and knees, basically. A few years ago Ong Bak was released and it caused a bit of a sensation for revitalizing a dying genre. The movie successfully combined quality set-pieces and death defying stunts with equal parts humor and brutal violence. Audiences around the world came out of the theater with aching joints after witnessing this new Muay Thai style. But while Ong Bak's star, Tony Jaa was as dexterous and slippery as Jackie Chan, he carried none of that man's charisma. So while it was good fun to see him crack skulls, we wished we could have a hero who could read a line with some believable feeling. Ong Bak 2 is around the corner so I'll report back if Jaa's taken some acting classes.

Which leads us to Chocolate. Chocolate tries to fixs Ong Bak's problem by crafting its story around actress JeeJa Yanin (much easier to write than Yanin Vismitananda), a string bean fighting machine that is no master thespian by any means (she's a newcomer just as Jaa was) but is a perfect fit for the movie. She's built like Olive Oyl so there's an innate pleasure is seeing her take down mobs of guys twice her size and age -- the actress is in her 20s but I believe her character is supposed to be in her teens. She's a joy to watch. Though I'm not sure if going so far as to make her character autistic, which the movie does, really helps but it gives her very little in the way of dialog and about halfway through the movie you're so excited that it's really beside the point. The autistic angle they go for also makes for an unprecedented mentally handicapped throwdown (I think her opponent has a breakdancey strain of tourettes) that is actually not tasteless at all and is in fact remarkable and funny in all the right ways.

Chocolate does indeed take it's sweet time becoming a good movie. It starts off, I hope I'm using the term correctly, craptacularly. There's a lot of nonsense about two rival gangs and a forbidden romance and bad bad music and ridiculously melodramatic cinematography that hasn't gone down well since late 80's John Woo. Eventually things pick up and our heroine Zen turns out to be the progeny of this elicit coupling and her mother, ostracized by her fellow gangland cronies, falls victim to cancer. At least I think it's cancer, I don't think they ever explain it -- but whatever her illness, the medicine costs too much. To pay the bills, Comic Relief, err Mangmoom aka Moomy aka the little guy who I think is Zen's cousin that live with them, hatches a plan to reach out to the businesses that Mom used to shake down when she was a mobster to collect on what they owe her. Brilliant! The kids are promptly thrown out on their ears but not for long. While it's never stated exactly what infliction makes Zen behave like Rainman, it's like some superhuman version of autism. It gives her lightning fast reflexes and the ability to mimic anyone she watches. Of course growing up she's been glued to the tv watching Tony Jaa movies so she realizes that now's the time to let the elbows of fury fly.

The kids quickly get in over their heads, reigniting the age old gang war and it isn't until the second shakedown, an ingeniously choreographed fight scene that takes place in glowing red meat market at night, that the movie really catches air. But when it does, it soars. The meat market scene is a thing of pure cinematic beauty. Like all great action sequences it combines every facet of movie making and brings them together in a glorious, harmonious filmic orgasm. The story, the set design, the camera movement, the sound design, the lighting, the choreography, the performers, the editing, it all comes together to overwhelm your senses and get your endorphins firing. Chocolate does this with jaw-dropping, profound skill. In the meat market we're initially led to believe that Zen will be too fearful of the abundant flies to go in and get her mother's money. The martial arts movie, like the slasher movie, deals with the manipulation of expectations. We know what Bruce Lee can do to a guy and we're sitting in our seats to see him do it again. But we want to be teased and we want him to overcome some obstacles to see him be able to do it. It makes it better. So when Moomy shows up unexpectedly with an electric fly swatter it elicits hoots and hollers form the audience -- it allows the ass-kicking to begin with quality reassurance. The odd, eerie red lighting of the meat market set gives the action a very cool and unique feel. It's not just another warehouse. More importantly, it allows for flying meat cleavers and some poor guys foot to end up on a hook and be sent swinging across the floor. You start to get caught up in the rhythm of the action. Every punch and kick is like a word in a sentence and the camera movement is the emphasis, a block is like a coma, a knockout a period. A well edited scene like the meat market fight is like a well written paragraph. It's extremely satisfying and gets you craving for more.

And when all is said and done Chocolate becomes the best straight-up martial arts film of the decade, rubbing shoulders with the best work anyone has done in the genre. This is due to the meat market scene but in large part to a final climactic sequence that doesn't come up for air for a good twenty minutes. It's a breath-taking, unbelievable achievement akin to the House of Blue Leaves climax in Kill Bill 1. In fact, it may even trump that. It starts in one room but ends up going through the entire floor, out onto the roof, underneath this pipe work that makes for an awe-inspiring squat-fight, onto an elevated train track and finally onto the signage and fire escapes of a downtown building. It's not just a technological marvel either -- it hits you on a pure emotional level as well. The audience that I watched it with were laterally clawing at their chairs, unleashing "fuck yeah"s and "holy shit"s, and generally failing to control their bliss once the movie got rolling and especially during this final monster of a scene. And when the film was over there was the inevitable ovation. This wholly appreciative crowd made for a better than usual experience, I'm sure (it's currently out on dvd and blue-ray). But this is what a good martial arts film can do. It can reach you at such a visceral level that it becomes exhilarating in a way no other film can. There is no denying the cinematic heights this film reaches when it is done.

During the credits it has become customary for these films to show their "blooper" reel. But in the case of Chocolate and others the blooper reel shows us the real concussions, broken bones and pain that the actors go through to complete the film. You might think they're plain stupid to throw their bodies and potentially their lives on the line to make a martial arts film, but I'm not one to belittle their passions. I doubt the Taiwanese film budgets have gotten anywhere close to Hong Kong's so I do think there's a lot of dedication that went into making this film. There are moments in these clips that show JeeJa Yanin shaking off a bad cut to the head, determining to keep spirits high, and wrapping her pained feet to keep the pain down and the shoot moving. This kind of spirit is heartening and I completely respect it. It's like the injured minor league ball player refusing to sit out the game. They're filled with pride and the folks behind Chocolate should be proud, they made one of the best films of its kind.

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