Aicha loves kung fu, and has been learning at an all-girls club after school for the last three years, until the instructor “introduces” her to a higher level of kung fu after an altercation with a fellow student. (Aicha also has a bit of a temper.) Alas, this higher level involves co-ed kung fu training. You know, with guys. That isn’t such a big deal for all you MTV kids out there, except Aicha is from a Muslim Turkish family with a very traditional father who believes Aicha’s big goal in life is to go to medical school just like her big brother, but before that, not to mess up the family’s chance of marrying into a richer family.
Not surprisingly, Aicha’s family is opposed to the idea of the teenage girl joining a mixed martial arts class. Of course, this little bump in the road isn’t going to stop our spunky girl, especially after Bruce Lee shows up on TV talking about being true to yourself no matter what. Off to the mixed martial arts class she goes, where the instructor grudgingly allows her to prove herself by sparring with hunky hunk Emil (Cyron Bjorn Melville), who couldn’t be more “other” to her Muslim community. Heck, he even has blond hair! But hormones have a way of overcoming borders, and during the brief match between the two teens, sparks fly. And oh yeah, Aicha is accepted into the class, which is good news and bad news: she’s finally found a place where her martial arts dream can blossom, but she’s going to have to hide it from her family. What’s a girl to do?
For those concerned they’re about to enter a gritty, European movie that will make them run to the showers afterwards, you needn’t worry. “Fighter” is not a movie where the girl is destined to be stoned to death by her traditional father ala an honor killing. I must admit, I was half-expecting it myself. This isn’t some Hollywood movie, after all, so there’s a very real chance director Natasha Arthy could be heading right into that sort of inevitable, tragic conclusion. Fortunately, no, this isn’t one of those “so serious as to be unwatchable” sort of movie. Although it doesn’t have the Hollywood stamp on it, “Fighter” is a familiar underdog sports story. Heck, swap the lead with a pale white girl and have her go into the ghetto, and you can call it “Save the Last Dance 3”. Except, er, this time it’ll be mostly in Danish.
First things first. The soundtrack for “Fighter” is, bar none, some of the best music I’ve heard in a movie in a long, long time. The soundtrack consists of what sounds like traditional Middle Eastern instrumentals haphazardly mixed with European dance beats, a combination that I haven’t heard before, but proves to be quite incredible. “Fighter” moves, thanks to its pounding rhythms and some nice cinema verite camerawork that knows when to shake things up and when to stop and just shoot the scene without spazzing all over the place. And there are plenty of opportunities for movement, especially since the film’s central motif is running. Lots and lots of running, both physically and metaphorically. In fact, the last time a movie had this much running by its leading lady set to music, it was a little German film that could called “Run Lola Run”.
But back to our girl Aicha. She is very much a girl on the run. In her dreams, to and from kung fu class, and perhaps most significantly, from what others expect, want, and indeed, demand of her. It’s almost too much for a teenager to bear, but newcomer Semra Turan, making her film debut, carries the weight of the world on her shoulders like a champ. And yes, the girl looks like she can fight, too. If you’ve seen any amount of martial arts movie, it’s relatively easy to spot when an actor is faking their way through martial arts. I don’t know how long Turan has been studying before venturing into movies, but she’s utterly convincing as an ass-kicker. And to be able to act on top of the fighting ability? I see stardom ahead of the little lady.
Beyond its Danish setting and Muslim trappings, “Fighter” does indeed conform to many of the rules of the underdog sports movie. It eventually concerns itself with a Big Game — or in this case, the Big Fight. Aicha’s chief villains are the usual suspects — a former classmate named Omar (Behruz Banissi), who doesn’t approve of Aicha’s mingling with the boys or her relationship with Emil; her brother and would-be sister in law, whose one refrain to her is, “Don’t blow it for us”. So when the Big Fight finally comes around, and Aicha faces off against Omar, it’s more than just a trophy at stake, it’s one rebellious girl confronting the combined might of everything she knows, that have now turned against her. Winning would be nice, but how about simple survival?
For martial arts fans, the film is more “Karate Kid” than anything by Van Damme or Seagal, meaning no one loses an eye, or an arm, or a ribcage or two. Still, director Natasha Arthy seems to be a bit schizophrenic when it comes to the action. During Aicha’s many running dreams, wire-fu is easy enough to explain away, but gets a bit harder when two characters are just sparring in a kung fu class. Perhaps the film’s biggest problem areas involve the story’s kung fu aspects; I don’t think Arthy has ever been in a dojo before, or knows how one works. Also, the film’s climactic Big Fight is supposed to take place at a sanctioned martial arts competition, but the set production looks more like something out of Jet Li’s illegal underground fighting movie “Unleashed”. Fortunately, the action in “Fighter” (choreographed by Xian Gao, who also plays Sifu in the film) is quite good, once again helped tremendously by lead Semra Turan’s natural ability to sell a fight scene.
“Fighter” benefits from an engaging and charismatic lead in Semra Turan, who could really end up being a big international star if she continues making movies. Without a doubt, the film could have garnered some critical attention had it been darker, moodier, and less fanciful given its Muslim subject matter. How many times have we seen mainstream movie critics around the world trip over themselves rushing to praise a European movie for being utterly tragic and wallowing in the type of “slit your wrist to end the suffering” depressing plotlines? “Fighter” is not one of those movies, thank God. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen had your average teen-friendly Hollywood movie did the unthinkable and just, for once, took a little bit of a chance, you needn’t look any further than “Fighter”. To its credit, the film, much like its main character, seems determined to walk its own path, even as it’s pretending to conform to your rules.
Natasha Arthy (director) / Nikolaj Arcel, Natasha Arthy, Rasmus Heisterberg (screenplay)
CAST: Semra Turan … Aicha
Nima Nabipour … Ali
Cyron Bjørn Melville … Emil
Molly Blixt Egelind … Sofie
Sadi Tekelioglu … Aicha’s Father
Behruz Banissi … Omar
Xian Gao … Sifu