High Kick Girl! (Japan 2009)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 4/11/10
Director: Fuyuhiko Nishi
Cast: Rina Takeda, Tatsuya Naka

Kei Tsuchiya (17 year old Rina Takeda) is a high school girl who loves fighting and desperately wants to receive her black belt in karate. However, her teacher Matsumura (Tatsuya Naka) doesn't think she's ready and forces her to practice her kata more. In order to prove to her teacher that she's strong enough, she joins a group of criminals called The Destroyers, whose ultimate goal is to lure Matsumura out of hiding and get revenge for a past dispute. Kei realizes this all too late, and Matsumura is eventually forced to rescue his wayward pupil.

This was a painful movie to watch, and the full contact punishment that the stunt players endured made me sick to my stomach. It reminded me of why I stopped practicing martial arts in the first place - I don't like getting hit in the face. The first thing you notice about the film is that it's definitely a karate film and not a kung fu film. The difference is striking. Kung fu movies traditionally feature a flurry of complex blocks and parries, whereas karate is all about critical strikes. Kung fu moves are flashy and graceful, while karate moves are small and brutal. Only their kicks are graceful (and thankfully Ms. Takeda does a lot of kicking). Another thing you notice right away is that the sound effects are highly realistic, and impacts sound like dull thuds rather than the popular exaggerated ham-fisted smacking.

It's clear that all of the actors are martial arts experts, and the acting suffers as a result. Only Rina Takeda appears to have any sort of acting chops, while everyone else appears stiff and wooden. She emotes fairly well and her intensity and focus are admirable. Her fighting skills are also top-notch and very impressive. Even though Kei is the main character, the film focuses more on Matsumura, and the final third of the film is devoted solely to him destroying the bad guys in an outstanding display of brutal martial arts skill. Tatsuya Naka is a superb fighter, but a TERRIBLE actor, which sadly robs the climax of any emotional impact. He's simply a non-stop stone-faced fighting machine. Unfortunately, the cinematography doesn't match the skill of the players, and the camera has a terrible time anticipating, and even following the action. All too many times the action is just barely out of frame, which is disappointing. Another disappointment is the English subtitles, which include crude and distracting closed captioning cues. I thought this went out of style in the early 90's. Overall, despite its shortcomings, "High Kick Girl!" is a "must see" for both martial arts fans and female action fans, and it will be very interesting to see what director Fuyuhiko Nishi does next.