Credit: Saima Khalid/Focus Features
by Esmé Holden Featured Film Genre Views

Polite Society — Nida Manzoor

April 28, 2023

When Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) holds a kung fu stance, it has the effect of transforming the rich colors, the intricate design, and the long flow of her traditional South Asian dress into something like a superhero costume. It’s such an undeniably fun and exciting image, but one that writer-director Nida Manzoor, creator of the Channel 4 show We Are Lady Parts (2018-), does little to further bring to life. Rye Lane, the superior British debut thus far in 2023, played true to its rom-com genre, but tweaked that architecture through its vibrant visual style and a specificity of and attention to location. Polite Society, on the other hand, isn’t really committed to any of the genres it mashes together, let alone its style. It’s directed with rote competence but pronounced flatness — a true television sensibility. 

Though the film’s premise has a simple, even cathartic, clarity — Ria is trying to save her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), from giving up on her passions, settling down with a boring, conventional man (Akshay Khanna), and resolving into patriarchal normalcy — Manzoor muddies this with the twist reveal that the true villain is… a woman. The actress playing her (who we won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers) is clearly having a good time with the tropes, and her character is still clearly motivated by a misogynistic ideology, but she’s also one who is ultimately drawn from some regressive tropes about aging women turning evil by trying to cling to youth and beauty. Setting Ria against her, rather than a more uncomplicated villainous man, saps a lot of the fun from smashing the patriarchy with a spinning kick. 

But even the film’s martial arts foundation, which should distinguish the film stylistically and technically, and elevate its televisual drama into melodramatic action spectacle, is mishandled. Kansara gives a highly amiable and dorky performance, but Ria’s passion, and her YouTube channel, feel too anonymous and unconvincing — it’s telling that on her bedroom wall is a poster of Bruce Lee (arguably the first martial artist to spring to most minds), though not in Enter the Dragon (1973) — or even Fist of Fury (1972) or The Big Boss (1971), for that matter — but instead as Kato from The Green Hornet (1966-1967). It’s all just a shorthand to communicate a general sense of rebellion; her desire to be a stuntwoman is just window dressing, and it could functionally be replaced with almost anything — it’s only resolved by chance once the real story is over. This would be quite strange if Polite Society was truly a martial arts film, but at its core, it isn’t. Sure, there are fights, which though fairly unimpressive and mostly consisting of slow-mo and the same jump-kicks on repeat, offer diverting enough entertainment in the moment. But ultimately, they’re entirely superfluous to the film’s sum: there isn’t a single thing that would change if any one of them was cut out.

Utilized similarly to the film’s musical numbers, these action sequences serve to communicate outbursts of emotions, but only those which have already been expressed through dialogue. They are neatly divided from “reality” by a caption describing who is “vs.” who. This seems like a rule made to be broken by the film’s second half, when its “twist” forces the genre elements into the otherwise down-to-earth drama, and takes it over entirely. It’s a clever idea in theory, but that liberating sense is undermined by the fact that the fights could simply be removed from the film with little consequence. As for the aforementioned musical numbers, there’s actually only one, and it’s utterly cut to pieces so that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot’s mechanics — the beauty of pausing a narrative for the respite of a musical interlude, like, say, when Harpo plays his harp in a Marx Brothers movie, seems lost on Manzoor. She doesn’t demonstrate much of a feel for genre at all, which makes all of these elements feel almost cynical, as if they’re just a way to manufacture an artificial hook and a stronger pitch. 

The same is true of the Polite Society’s visuals at large, all of which all feel like part of a transparently thin sheen plastered on top of an otherwise quite ordinary film; a few half-hearted whip zooms and chapter titles do not a style make. And certainly not an original one. It’s clear that Polite Society is more influenced by Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino than anything that influenced them, and even then it’s all the product of a very general vibe rather than any specific technical craft or point of view. It notably lacks that quality of so many of the greatest martial arts films from Hong Kong — as memorably quoted in David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong (2000), from a negative review of King Boxer (1972) — of being “all too extravagant, too gratuitously wild.” In an interview for Collider, Manzoor talks lovingly about test screening, which mostly existed to shave off some of the film’s edges, preventing it from becoming too anything. But given the generic final product, it’s tough to imagine Polite Society even had many to begin with.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.