Polite Society: Mild-Mannered Martial Arts

“Tropes are tropes because they work!”

Nida Manzoor’s debut feature film Polite Society is a neat extension of the ideas and themes present in her short films. From her debut short film Arcade (2013), through to her last short Lady Parts (2018), Manzoor’s written and directed efforts engage with bright and energetic characters dealing with contemporary societal expectations of femininity. One of the hallmarks of Manzoor’s approach to filmmaking is her willingness to push boundaries and explore taboo subjects. Her acclaimed 2019 television series “Enterprice” follows the adventures of two young British-Pakistani entrepreneurs who start a questionable T-shirt business in East London. The show tackles issues of race, identity, and cultural clash with a sharp wit and an unapologetic sense of humour, challenging stereotypes and pushing audiences to think differently about the complexities of modern multiculturalism. 

Polite Society is a story about Ria Khan, a British-Pakistani teenager living in London who dreams of becoming a movie stuntwoman. Despite her parents’ traditional values and discouragement, Ria pursues her passion with the help of her older sister Lena, under the alter-ego “The Fury”. The film showcases the close-knit relationship between the sisters as they create martial arts training videos while navigating their own personal struggles and challenges in a society that often places limitations on their dreams. Ria’s story is one of perseverance and determination in the face of cultural and societal obstacles, as she pursues her passion despite her parents’ traditional values and expectations. Ria’s resistance to her sister Lena’s arranged marriage is a key aspect of the film’s rejection of cultural conventions. The film depicts the pressures faced by young British-Pakistani women to conform to traditional gender roles and expectations, such as marrying within their culture and having children. Ria’s decision to pursue her passion for martial arts and stunt work, despite her parents’ wishes, is an act of rebellion against the constraints placed on her by her culture and family.

This is a film that has a lot of ambition, but at times it feels like it’s trying to do too much all at once. The film weaves together various storylines that don’t always come together in a cohesive way, leaving the audience feeling a bit disoriented. However, the energetic and lively editing style, reminiscent of early Edgar Wright films, makes for an engaging viewing experience, even if it can be a little rough around the edges. The editing style propels the film forward, exuding a dynamic energy that captures the teenage energy and angst of the central character.

While martial arts are a consistent feature throughout the film, they often feel like they are used primarily as a backdrop or accessory to the main story. The younger sister’s interest in karate and desire to become a stunt person is present, but it takes a backseat to the central dynamic of the sisterly love that the film explores in depth. While Ria’s story may not be the central focus of “Polite Society”, it is an important thread that adds depth and nuance to the film’s exploration of identity and belonging. Eagled-eyed viewers will spot brief moments of set dressing that contribute to the explored themes, in oh-so-subtle ways. They’ll spot a poster for The Man With The Iron Fists (2012), a martial arts film directed by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, that has black actors in prominent roles, and strong female characters who are given agency and autonomy in the story. Or a poster for Bruce Lee’s appearance as Kato in the Green Hornet TV show (1966) – Lee’s performance as Kato challenged traditional stereotypes of Asian men as weak or subservient, portraying him as a skilled and capable fighter who was an essential part of the Green Hornet’s crime-fighting team. By featuring a character who breaks stereotypes and challenges expectations, the film highlights the complexity and diversity of the British Pakistani community, while also contributing to a broader movement towards greater representation and inclusivity in the film industry.

The movie displays an astute awareness of genre conventions and pays homage to various staples of blockbuster cinema. There are numerous nods and references to iconic films, such as The Terminator (1984), and scenes that seem to channel the likes of James Bond, with a ‘torture’ scene involving waxing, as well as a heist scene reminiscent of Oceans Eleven (2001).

It is a film that weaves together various storylines and themes, exploring the complexities of identity, belonging, and cultural clash in modern-day London. The film tackles these issues with intelligence, nuance, and a keen sense of humour, challenging stereotypes and pushing audiences to think differently about the world around them. While the various storylines and ideas presented in the film are captivating on their own, they struggle to come together in a cohesive manner, causing the film’s ambitious nature to become its own obstacle.

Polite Society pushes back against cultural and societal conventions, throws out some wild spinning kicks, creates a lively multicultural snapshot of contemporary London, and has a really fun time doing it too. A movie that says up with sisterhood, and down with the patriarchy. 


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