I'm about to wax rhapsodic about a cheesy, transparently manipulative martial arts film. But seriously: Prachya Pinkaew's 2008 movie Chocolate is the best film I've ever seen that features an autistic protagonist. And it's the only piece of media I've personally encountered that features a nonverbal protagonist.
If you haven't seen the film, take a look at the trailer. Yep, the English-language tagline is "A special-needs girl with a special need...TO KICK SOME ASS." To me, that sounds both fantastic and phenomenally exploitive. As it turns out, the movie is pretty fantastic and far less exploitive than I expected. It's hardly a masterpiece, but it is first and foremost a martial arts film, from the same director as the hit Ong Bak. The focus is on the fights and, though I am hardly a connoisseur of the genre, I was certainly entertained by the fight sequences. All the story really needs to do is offer the viewer a likable enough main character and put something at stake so that we're invested in the fights. That's where the film's flagrant manipulation lies: The protagonist is a nonverbal autist and she's fighting to obtain money to pay for her mother's cancer treatments. A disabled child with a single mother dying of cancer sounds like Lifetime or Hallmark Channel territory— unbearably sentimental, verging on pity porn.
Except that Zen, the autist in question, isn't a plot device and her mother, Zin, isn't hapless and passive. Zin was the lover of a dangerous Thai gangster called No. 8, for whom she also worked as a high-interest moneylender. She left him for a Yakuza boss with whom she fell deeply in love. No. 8's wrath forced the couple apart, with the Yakuza departing for Japan in order to protect Zin. No. 8 remains a menacing and abusive presence in Zin's life while she tries to maintain a "normal" existence with her profoundly autistic daughter. Zen shows an early fascination with martial arts, and presents savant-like reflexes and aptitude for hand-to-hand combat. When her mother develops cancer, Zen and a close childhood friend named Moom try to raise money to pay for treatment. Moom finds a ledger of various criminals who owe Zin money, and Zen ends up calling in her mother's debts by force.
It is true that Zen's autism is portrayed very stereotypically: she stims by rocking, she obsessively lines up chocolate candies by color, and she's a savant with a superhuman capacity to mimic and anticipate fighting moves. But Yanin "Jeeja" Vismitananda's performance is compelling enough that Zen comes across as a tenacious, perceptive, and intelligent young woman. And Zen is a nonverbal autistic woman—a non-white, non-Western woman—who drives the action of her own story and has a definitive character arc. While Moom proposes the initial idea of calling in debts, it is Zen who sees the need for violent persuasion and takes it upon herself to carry it out. In a cultural climate that overwhelmingly portrays "low-functioning" and/or nonverbal autistic people as subhuman, as unreachable and burdensome, Zen stands out as a character who is both dependent and protective. She isn't an obstacle or plot device in someone else's story, she's a strong-willed and resourceful protagonist. She has both vulnerabilities and strengths, moments of both weakness and courage, just like any non-disabled and "well-rounded" character.
Ultimately, Zen's quest shifts from funding her mother's cancer treatments to protecting her mother from the abusive No. 8. I cannot discuss what I think is the boldest and most compelling aspect of the film without MAJOR SPOILERS, so CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.
Really, I'm about to completely spoil the movie for you right here:
Zen's mother dies. Despite having spent most of the movie collecting money to pay for lifesaving treatments, Zen watches her mother get run-through by No. 8. And God help him, because the film's climax is a woman with savant levels of badassery (like Lisbeth Salander, come to think of it) relentlessly pursuing her mother's misogynistic abuser (also like Lisbeth Salander) across the rooftops of Bangkok. No. 8 dies battered and terrified at Zen's hands. Is that a thing, autistic women as avenging Furies? Can we make it a thing? Do we really want to make it a thing?
In the bittersweet resolution, Zen ends up living in the care of her father, who returned to Thailand just before the climax in an effort to save Zin. Zin's death signifies Zen's transition from a sheltered and dependent child to an independent woman. You can pick apart that unfortunate trope—that adulthood and independence are established via a mother's death—if you like, but in this film the resolution proves quite subversive. Zen can be both dependent and independent. She can rely on her family's care without being infantilized and without losing her agency. No piece of fiction is actually about its events, and even this over-the-top martial arts movie is no exception. Chocolate is about growing up and confronting loss. That this story is told with a nonverbal protagonist is actually pretty revolutionary.
If there's anything really problematic to be found in the film, one might find it in the fact that No. 8's minions include a gang of fearsome transvestites. These characters don't fall into the transphobic trope of mocking transvestites and trans women for being "falsely" hyperfeminine or "trapping" heterosexual cis men under "false" pretenses, however. They're transvestites, they're sex workers, they can fight, and they happen to be bad guys.
Zen never deals with sexuality or romantic entanglement in the film, but if she had it would have felt distinctly out of place and tacked on. Is the film complicit in the erasure of "low-functioning"/nonverbal sexuality? Again, there is really no reason for Zen to have a love interest. The movie is about her becoming an adult, and sexual/romantic relationships aren't a necessary part of that process, as much as Hollywood would like us to believe that they are. Purportedly Chocolate 2 is in the works, so we'll see if Zen's sexuality is explored in her further adventures. If she gets a love interest, I'm certain the relationship won't be same-sex or same-gender, but since she is profoundly autistic, any intimate relationship she might have will be queer in the academic sense: non-normative and subversive.
Thinking about both Zen and Lisbeth Salander, what does it mean that these two prominent female autistic characters are defined by extreme violence? On the one hand, we cheer for them as they pound against the patriarchy, but does it reinforce the stereotype that disabled people—especially autists—are inherently more violent or unpredictable than non-disabled people? Neither Zen nor Lisbeth is out of control; both women are deliberate and calculating. In Zen's case, her body is her most effective communicative tool, and violence becomes a kind of language through which she expresses and achieves her goals. Ultimately, I think it comes back to the timeless, unanswerable questions about violence and its place. Is violence always negative—is it a social ill to be eradicated—or can it be reclaimed and channeled constructively? Maybe those are some deep thoughts for a shallow action movie, but sometimes the simplest stories are the most compelling, and anything compelling is worthy of analysis.