Director Natasha Arthy's Fighter (2007) does an excellent job of merging the typical underdog martial arts movie with the depth and emotional weight of a good indie drama. Unlike the movie's formulaic fight movie peers, the piece is more story than action-driven. The film is well-written, well-acted, and produces a fresh overall experience even though the movie includes some well-tread subject matter.
Fighter's premise of a teenager whose passion for martial arts pushes her to go against the grain of her traditional Muslim family sounds simple enough. But I think people from other cultures would be surprised how her hobby causes deep and wide-ranging problems in her life.
Aicha (Semra Turan) is a teenager to a Muslim family in Copenhagen. Her traditional family expects her to go to medical school after graduating from high school and they frown upon her interest in kung fu. Furthermore, her family and the Muslim community look down on her kung fu club where men and women train together. Much of the movie shows Aicha struggling to live her secret life as a kung fu practitioner while not disappointing her family. Consequently, the film depicts a lot of running around Copenhagen and looking at clocks to see if she’s late for kung fu class.
Added into the mix is her brother’s arranged marriage. That has implications for the entire family, including an expected second marriage of Aicha to the other family's younger son. There's even a blossoming romance with a Danish student from her kung fu class. Thankfully, Fighter doesn't devolve into the typical forbidden love story. That particular story arc is important to the film, but doesn't overwhelm it. The dilemmas surrounding Aicha's failing school grades, the expectations of her family, and those of the community all begin to close in on her. Even with all of these external factors, Aicha keeps finding herself heading back to kung fu class.
Fighter is one of those downward spiral movies where things seem to get worse and worse. It therefore has that a more of an indie drama feel to it than an underdog sports or fighting movie like Karate Kid. However, the action is high quality thanks to famed fight choreographer Gao Xian who may be most famous for his work on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
There are occasional slow motion effects and a little wire work, but most of the action is believable and not over the top. The kung fu training sessions are beautiful as kung fu is, perhaps, a more visually interesting art than karate. Semra Turan is a believable enough as a kung fu practitioner and a good dramatic actress. Cyron Melville who plays the Danish love interest appears to be an excellent athlete and martial artist; or at least he does a good job acting like one.
As in every martial arts movie, there's a climactic fight, but Fighter's is a meaningful one with more drama and depth to the battle than the clichéd "he killed my brother" storyline. Aicha is symbolically battling against the traditional Muslim expectations that her opponent represents. Fighter is not one of those action-packed movies where you turn your brain off and suspend belief. Fighter has something for everyone as it merges love, a clash of cultures, and martial arts into a memorable, well-told story.