With global martial arts fans all worked into a lather over Prachya Pinkaew’s upcoming female starring fight flick Chocolate very little attention has been paid to other parts of the world. Case in point: Natasha Arthy’s Danish kung fu oriented drama Fighter. And the lack of attention is truly a shame because this is one film that truly deserves it. While Chocolate may win more points for sheer spectacle Fighter is clearly superior in terms of story, character, direction and is itself loaded with hugely impressive – and all the more so for how naturally they are shot – fight scenes. Were you to put Fighter’s Semra Turan – a national level kung fu martial artist - into a fair fight with Chocolate’s female star there’s a better than average chance Turan would come out on top. Yes, she is really that good and Fighter gives her ample opportunity to showcase both her skills as a martial artist and as an actress thanks to its complex, multi faceted drama.
Turan stars as Aicha, a hot blooded Turko-Danish teenaged girl whose one great passion is the martial arts. She watches kung fu films constantly, mimicking the moves of the stars she idolizes as the films play, and trains in martial arts in a casual, girls only after school club. Or, at least she trains there until her hot temper gets her kicked off the club. Her school coach, recognizing Aicha’s natural talent, suggests that she enlist in a local, elite level club – where the Iron Monkey himself, Xian Gao, is the sifu – to further her skills but there is one problem: the club is mixed gender and Aicha’s very conservative Turkish parents will never consent to their daughter training in a space shared with boys.
And right away you should see how Fighter differs from most martial arts films. While the training and combat scenes are plentiful they are not the point of the film. This is a film about Aicha, a young girl caught between cultures trying to find her own way through life, trying to learn who she is and what role her family plays for her. It is a coming of age story, a race and gender issues story, and a love story before it is a martial arts story and it stands head and shoulders above the huge majority of fight films with scripts cobbled together simply as an excuse to get you from one fight scene to the next as a result.
Arthy has a very skilled hand behind the camera, shooting the film in a very natural and intimate style, one that verges on verite at times and keeps the emphasis on her characters while having the twin effect of making the physical skills on display that much more impressive for being so unvarnished. The script is rich and detailed, filled with the complexities of clashing cultures and warring parental instincts, doing justice to the complicated subject matter and resisting ever slipping into easy cliché. This feels like a real family dealing with real issues and that is something seen too seldom. The acting is very strong across the board, particularly from Turan in the lead and her young peers. The fighting? Very impressive thanks to choreography and, reportedly, three months of intensive training supervised by Xian Gao prior to shooting. The choreography is inventive, realistic, very athletic – showcasing the impressive real life skills of Turan to great effect – and flawlessly shot in dominantly wide, long shots designed to let you appreciate the skill on screen. While there is wire work evident in a handful of fantasy tinged sequences the kung fu is generally unassisted with any gadgetry and is very impressive.
Fighter is simply a hugely impressive piece of work, one that functions simultaneously on a handful of levels and handles each element note-perfectly. Very highly recommended.