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Chocolate's skull-shattering heroine Jeeja Yanin belongs to a stately tradition of female ass-kickers in Asian cinema.
In Prachya Pinkaew's Chocolate, Jeeja Yanin plays Zen, an autistic teenage girl driven to collect money to pay her mother's hospital bills. The family melodrama plays out with the utmost sincerity, prefaced by the film's opening dedication to the real "special children" who inspired the film. But what makes Zen "special," and thus worthy of our emotional investment? Is it that she's autistic? That she's a teenager? Or that she's a girl?
The film suggests that it's the first: that she's mentally and emotionally stunted, blessed only with the freak ability to catch any object thrown at her. This skill turns out to be part of a larger repertoire of special gifts: a dazzling array of moves that would certify her as a martial arts master by any standards.
But watching the film, we find that Zen's autism becomes increasingly unimportant. At first, there's loony fun in watching her frumpled look (disheveled bangs draped over eyes which never seem to gaze above her shoes) while she pummels villain after villain. But soon Zen's outrageous physical skill overshadows any other handicaps. Perhaps it's because Jeeja Yanin underplays the autism during the fights, but we forget that there's anything stunted about this martial arts powerhouse.
And I mean "stunted" in both senses. As with Tony Jaa (and his predecessor Jackie Chan and for that matter, Buster Keaton), Yanin has no stunt-double: that's her taking and delivering the monstrous hits. Thus Zen's real-life counterpart (Yanin, the actress) comes to the fore as the object of our attention as much as the character herself. We know (or perhaps assume) that Jeeja Yanin is not actually autistic, making the "special-ness" of her mental affliction less emotionally central.
Yet there's no doubt that Yanin (and Zen) are special. Perhaps instead we're captivated because she's a teenager. In reality, Yanin is in her early 20s, but watching the film, you'd sometimes think she were 13. The camera often glimpses her in high angle shots that diminish her size. (Yanin is 5'3".) She wears baggy pants and puffy skirts that make her appear scrawny. It's the juxtaposition between her miniature size and her maximal explosiveness that wins our imagination. For this high-flying, back-flipping bundle of joy, no head is too high to be bludgeoned by her quick shins and knees.
Could it be, also, that we're impressed because Zen is female? There's something condescending about that possibility -- as if we would assume that violent bone-crunching is antithetical to her gender. After all, nobody watches Tony Jaa and makes note of the fact that he's male. What I like about Chocolate is that the film draws little attention to her gender, focusing more on her autism (through the narrative) and her size (through the framings). There's no talk of how un-feminine she acts, nor is she ever objectified by other characters sexually or romantically. Nor is there ever talk about what martial arts are "appropriate" for women, as in Lau Kar-leung's 1978 film Heroes of the East. While it's at-times tempting to call her the female Tony Jaa or the female Bruce Lee (whose The Big Boss is quoted extensively), those unfortunate analogies are mostly in the minds of the viewer.
So why talk of her gender at all then? Well, because it's inspiring. Because it's rare and therefore all-too needed. In other words, it's "special" not because Zen transcends the biological limitations of her sex, but because she transcends the social-cultural stupidity that thinks there are those limitations to begin with. In fact, she shatters them.
Click here to go to APA's list of Top Ten Female Martial Artists in Asian film
Date Posted: 2/20/2009