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cast: Semra Turan, Cyron Melville, Nima Nabipour, Molly Blixt Egelund, and Xian Gao

director: Natasha Arthy

97 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
If Fighter had been a Hollywood movie, the pitch would have gone something like, 'Billy Elliot meets Romeo Must Die'. But Fighter is Danish, filmed in Copenhagen with a Danish and Turkish cast. So there was probably no Hollywood-style pitch, even if Billy Elliot meets Romeo Must Die is, well, a pretty accurate description of the film...

Aicha (Semra Turan) is a Turkish Muslim in Copenhagen. She is obsessed with kung fu, and practices after school with other girls. Her teacher suggests she tries out at the Dragon kung fu school. The school is mixed and, since this is not allowed for Muslim women, Aicha does not tell her parents. After Semra's try-out, the school's kung fu master, Sifu (Xian Gao), accepts Semra. She is told to practise with Emil (Cyron Melville).

Meanwhile, Aicha's older brother Ali (Nima Nabipour) has just become engaged to Jasmin (Öslem Saglanmak). But when Jasmin's parents learn of Aicha's kung fu - of course, the truth eventually comes out - they call off the engagement. Aicha runs away from home. She tries rapprochement - agreeing to give up kung fu, even though she has reached black belt and has been asked to represent the Dragon kung fu school in the championships. But she has to be true to her dream... And you can guess the rest.

The parallels with Billy Elliot are plain. Semra is set on doing something which will see her ostracised by family and friends. So she must choose between what she wants and what is expected of her. She wants to have her cake and eat it. And, as is common in such films, she gets to do both. Admittedly, the 'cake' is somewhat manufactured in that Fighter is as much a film about culture clash as it is about realising dreams. In Denmark, it is not considered unusual for boys and girls to practise sports together; in Islam, it is haram (forbidden; shame). There's also the additional cultural element of Ali's marriage - the fact that he must be a suitable husband in the eyes of Jasmin's parents, and not just because he and Jasmin are in love.

Fighter is Aicha's story, so it's fortunate that Semra Turan successfully carries the film. She's been practising karate for ten years, so she convinces in the fight scenes. Perhaps the only aspect about Fighter which does not convince - and is likely an artefact of the constrained timeframe available to tell the story - is Aicha's meteoric rise to black belt. In fact, while the story appears to take place over a matter of weeks, the kung fu careers of the members of the Dragon school seem to progress by years with each flying kick.

Which is odd since kung fu is so central to Fighter. Perhaps this is a result of the director's choice to use the balletic, slow-motion style of fight choreography pioneered in Chinese wu xia films. In fact, Xian Gao, who choreographs the kung fu in Fighter, was fight choreographer on Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Such fighting seems too... accomplished, too Hollywoodised, for a film featuring a kung fu school. So while Xian Gao certainly succeeds in making the kung fu bouts in Fighter visually arresting, they do at times seem at odds with the rest of the film's Scandinavian cinéma vérité.

It is as a culture-clash film that Fighter succeeds best, but it is as a kung fu film that it is most memorable. Those slow-motion fights using wire-work are what will appeal to viewers. I suspect not many will understand why Aicha and her family have such a problem with her joining the Dragon kung fu school, or with her growing closeness to Emil. Barriers to aspirations are, after all, supposed to be surmountable. And in Hollywood they always are. That's what the third act is for. But Aicha's situation is not so easily resolvable - what she wants is prohibited by her religion. The fact that Fighter does just that, does give her the happy ending the viewer deserves, might be seen as a cop-out. She worked for it - and the moral dilemma her choice presents is later extended to encompass her family - but if her capitulation to her father's wishes felt realistic, her defiance of them does not.

Nonetheless, Fighter is an entertaining, interesting and well-made film. Its slow-mo fight scenes feel a little faddish and, for me, spoiled what could have been an excellent movie about a Muslim family in a western secular society. But I suspect others will see it differently.

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