No one likes getting kicked in the face. I'm lucky enough to say that it's never happened to me, but I've seen it happen and I know it's not pleasant. The meeting of foot and face is anything but a harmonious one, and all it does is bring about a lot of pain. Seeing it on the big screen, however, is often an unrivaled cinematic joy. I can't explain why, but I sure love seeing people kicked in the face in movies. It's not that it's an unrealistic thing - like I said, I've seen it happen - but it can be a very cinematic thing, like a dance move that only an Astaire or Kelly can properly accomplish, and it makes its point very succinctly. I must admit, I likes the kicking and punching a lots.
Two of this year's Fantastic Fest features both contain inordinate amounts of kicking, and both of them are enjoyable for that reason alone. But one of them is a little bit better, and that's because it's got heart, while the other one has entertainment value simply due to the kicking and punching. Natasha Arthy's FIGHTER has gotten comparisons to THE NEXT KARATE KID for some reason, probably because no one else can seem to think of another martial arts film with a young female protagonist, while we just happend to have two this year at Fantastic Fest. FIGHTER is unquestionably the better of the two, but what makes it good is not the kicking (which is just fine), and the martial arts, while certainly an important part of the equation, is not the film's reason for being. FIGHTER was one of four Danish films to screen this year (nothing we had planned, but it ended up being a good year for Danish genre films) and the fact that it's Danish would make one think that it's going to be off-kilter and silly, but like that Swedish vampire movie, it turns out that its country of origin is one of the strongest things about it. Actually, FIGHTER deals with matters of nationality and identity better than most any Hollywood picture ever would, telling the story of Muslim Turk Semra Turan, a headstrong young woman with a passion and skill at martial arts who struggles for acceptance from her own family and fellow Turks. As Muslim women are not supposed to learn martial arts (and especially to study a physical activity in the same class as men), this becomes the heart of the drama, because you really understand just what eats her up inside. This is a true struggle of identity and not just mere martial arts phooey like, "you killed my master" and it works very well. Following her heart and staying true to herself carries a very deep price, not only for her but for her family, too, and combining the martial arts with the Muslim aspect makes FIGHTER all the better. But Arthy's real secret weapon is Turan, just terrific in the lead role and a true star in the making. In additon to being god damn gorgeous and an excellent physical performer and martial artist, Turan also hits all the right notes in the dramatic category, and without her FIGHTER would not be as good as it is. Admittedly, FIGHTER hits a lot of the same notes that films of this type do (she has to win the respect of her teacher; she has to hide her training from her parents; she falls for a boy in the class, ect.), but with Turan in the lead it feel fresher than it has any right to, so bless her for it. I also thought it was interesting in how we got to see the plight of a Muslim family in Denmark (where, as we all know, there have been some serious conflicts), and that element felt much more organic and essential to the story's success. The film is also very serious about martial arts as a positive influence on this young woman - another plus - but too many of the martial arts scenes are done to annoying techno with fast cuts that undercut the drama. But in the end I suppose it doesn't matter, since what we see works so well otherwise, making FIGHTER an honest-to-goodness uplifting film that earns the uplift. A very nice surprise.
Less of a surprise is Prachya Pinkaew's CHOCOLATE, one of the most anticipated films this year by the geek crowd, and I'm sure they got what they wanted out of it, which was the kicking and the punching. Pinkaew's previous pictures, the Tony Jaa starrers ONK BAK and TOM-YUM- GOONG (a.k.a. THE PROTECTOR), were famous for their kicking (justifiably so), and if all you want is kicking, then CHOCLATE is your movie. But like FIGHTER proves, if you've got some heart in there with your kicking you can accomplish a lot and CHOCOLATE is, in the end, basically about kicking. As such, it does the kicking incredibly well and is fun to watch for that reason alone, but yeah, I wished there was more. Like FIGHTER, it features a female protagonist (the incredible Yanin Vismistananda, who Pinkaew created the part for), and some great martial arts, but as CHOCOLATE is really nothing more than a fantasy it doesn't resonate in anywhere near the same way. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two films (why did we have to show them in the same year, Tim?), but FIGHTER proves that martial arts alone are not what's going to make your movie worth watching. CHOCOLATE's plot is a pretty standard revenge thing and the lead character's autism its only the only original aspect, but that actually takes away from whatever emotional connection the film could have made, since it's difficult to relate to her. Vismistananda's martial arts skills are outstanding in every way (she trained for two years for the role) - she's certainly what makes the film worth seeing - and the action climax certainly does deliver just on an action level. But with just martial arts alone watching CHOCOLATE is like eating a lot of chocolate: tasty and sweet, but unfullfilling and packed with empty calories. Listen, I've very much enjoyed some of the other Thai action films I've seen (Panna Rittkrai's BORN TO FIGHT got by on insane, jaw-dropping action alone and I loved it for it), but if a picture doesn't click then all you've got is kicking, and a lot of it. It's great kicking, but you could simply get by with a 10-minute YouTube reel and not see the entire movie and you'd be OK. I do loves the kicking, but I need a little something more to give it a bit more, um, punch.