“But when El Mechri does hit the right notes Kung Fu Zohra soars as a domestic drama, moments which give Ouazani, already impressive meeting the physical demands of her role, a chance to show some impressive dramatic chops as well.”
The winner of IFFR’s VPRO Big Screen Award will get a theatrical release in The Netherlands and also be shown on Dutch TV. Theater and TV programmers alike must have been glad the winner this year was Mabrouk El Mechri’s fourth film, Kung Fu Zohra, since this unexpected mix of martial arts comedy and domestic abuse drama is very audience friendly and should do well both at the box office and in TV ratings. Although El Mechri doesn’t always succeed at striking the right balance between serious drama and humorous popcorn fare, a charismatic lead performance and a swift pace make Kung Fu Zohra an easy and entertaining watch. The movie should raise the profile of its star Sabrina Ouazani and it marks a welcome return to the big screen for El Mechri after a decade working in television, while also giving attention to an important issue.
After a chance meeting in Morocco in the film’s opening scenes, Zohra (Ouazani) has followed Omar (Ramzy Bedia) to France. Initially happy in her married life, the always positive Zohra gradually starts to see the darker side of the disillusioned and jealous Omar. What starts with an occasional slap soon escalates into more violence, the marks of which Zohra hides behind lies and sunglasses. The birth of her daughter (Mira Rogliano) locks her in the abusive marriage, especially since Omar builds a strong bond with the girl. Zohra, who has been a fan of martial arts films since childhood, starts to take online self-defense classes and takes an extra night job as a cleaning lady in a gym, where she meets a mysterious old Chinese guard who may be her way out of her miserable life at home…
Weaving together the serious topic of domestic violence with the funny and light Karate Kid-inspired scenes of Zohra training with her new master is something El Mechri doesn’t completely succeed at, especially when the inevitable showdown between Zohra and Omar, however entertaining and expertly choreographed given their apartment’s small confines, veers into slapstick territory. Likewise, a plot strand involving a bus driver Zohra befriends (Eye Haïdara), who functions as a voice-over raconteur of Zohra’s story, doesn’t really justify its own existence. But when El Mechri does hit the right notes Kung Fu Zohra soars as a domestic drama, moments which give Ouazani, already impressive meeting the physical demands of her role, a chance to show some impressive dramatic chops as well.
Kung Fu Zohra wears its influences on its sleeve, Zohra’s Mr. Miyagi-like kung fu master being the most obvious nod, ranging from any Bruce Lee film (Enter the Dragon, anyone?) to the Chuck Norris / Jean-Claude van Damme vehicles from the ’80s and ’90s (El Mechri has experience with the latter, directing the Belgian legend in 2008’s JCVD). It seems that Kung Fu Zohra first and foremost wants to be an entertaining film, but it is to El Mechri’s credit that he wants to not just give his story a serious undertone, but actually put it front and center at times. While this results in a film that is somewhat schizophrenic, it is a commendable effort to use entertainment to put a spotlight on such a serious problem. For this alone it is a good thing Kung Fu Zohra won the Big Screen Award at this year’s festival, since that will bring attention for the problem to a larger audience, but the fact that the film is damn entertaining also helps.