There’s a unique magical pleasure I get when watching Egyptian movies I like. As a viewer whose cinematic taste was formed in the time of globalization, deep inside my brain the word “hero” will always make me think of blue eyes, and wherever there’s an explosion there’s always a red convertible American car.
America and its cinema have completely occupied my imagination, and millions, maybe billions of other people’s. They invented the giant monster that cinema is, trained it for years to do what they want it to do, then spread it out all over the world to mate with the locals and breed all sorts of weird babies. I’m afraid I’ll always see any non-American movie as the spawn of its makers and America, one way or another.
American calculations and division of labor taught American filmmakers how to use illusion to capture viewers’ emotions and thoughts for a set time span of entertainment, education or distraction. Egyptian filmmakers have done the same thing but totally differently.
Mr. Karate (1993) is about red convertibles driving through explosions. But its Egyptian flavor comes from replacing the red convertible with an unemployed Egyptian young man with a broken leg: Salah (Ahmed Zaki).
The movie makes fun of its title, which is also the main character’s nickname, twice.
The first time is when Salah realizes he’ll forever limp, after a rich kid drives over his leg. The kid’s father thinks LE1000 and an operation in an okay hospital is far more than a useless countryside security guard/parking assistant would ever dream of as a price for a broken leg.
In a late interview before his death in 2005, Ahmad Zaki said the only thing he regretted about the movie was the name. He said it misled people into thinking it’s a karate spoof, but it’s just about a simple man trying to get by in 1990s Cairo. But in my opinion that’s the great thing about this movie: it’s both those things.
Salah, helpless, naive as a piece of wood, is transported to Cairo like a horse to fill in after the death of his father, who washed cars. He wonders what kind of future is there for him wiping people’s cars — and asses — during what’s supposed to be the best time of his life. He is totally aware of how his life doesn’t matter to anybody. This is the first line he says in the movie, when he’s being interviewed along with other simple villagers by a TV variety show that was famous at the time.
Salah’s head is full of questions and dreams. This is why the world of karate heroism and the magic of movie posters captivate him. The way Zaki’s eyes roll around in amazement, confusion and a strange, extremely realistic sense of embarrassment as he enters the video rental shop for the first time is a priceless piece of acting. You feel you’re looking into Zaki’s own imagination and relationship with stardom and dreams.
The hype around karate in 1993, the fact that lots of Salahs were crazy about karate movies, makes perfect sense. TV was invading the peaceful villages of thousands of poor helpless individuals, poking and mocking them, showing them the sweet life, dragging them all the way up to Cairo. They arrived, just like Salah, in the city of chaos, only to realize they’d come to be fed to the big fish. What better salve than constant doses of on-screen triumphs for little Davids against lots of big Goliaths? When Salah’s karate mentor and friend explains that the word karate means “the empty hand,” Salah shows huge admiration to whoever invented the sport.
In “Mr Karate” we see a lot of this admiration for karate movies, for the hours of compassionate back-patting these tapes provided to those who spent their days busting their asses off for a few piasters, their biggest treat tea with lots of sugar. It shows this admiration not only by gazing at screens playing such movies and the posters advertising them, as Salah does, but also, as Salah fantasizes about being a karate hero, Mr. Karate imagines being one of these movies. With its funky early electro soundtrack of processed beats and computers clicks mixed with traditional Egyptian tabla, for example. The movie also borrows from karate movies its pyramid-shaped struggle in which the hero starts with a big flat defeat, meets the mentor, learns the skills, possesses a vulnerability, and wins, fights, wins, fights, loses, fights back, all the way up to the boss.
Scriptwriter and film critic Raouf Tawfiq, here in his third collaboration with Mohamed Khan after Omar’s Journey (1986) and The Wife of an Important Man (1988), slides smoothly along this very fine path, producing a script incredibly easy to digest and interact with. The struggles are clear and classic, and the meaning of the fear and ambition inside Salah’s head is primitive. At the same time it keeps a very realistic backbone, with a clear vision of the conditions in which all this is happening and why. There’s only one bit where the movie fails to explain the real knot behind the illegal activity Salah gets tangled in.
In one scene Salah wants to help out an old lady forced to keep coming to a nearby government bureau to try and claim her pension. He empathizes with her broken pride, her neglect by the government, and her lack of means. So he creates a foolish plot. To the sound of the same music that plays in the fight scenes, he walks the lady into the bureau, causes a scene, breaks into the manager’s office and convinces him with his heavy countryside accent that he’s an undercover presidential intelligence agent on a mission and it’s important for the presidency that this lady’s papers get sorted out as quickly as possible. The stupid manager buys the childish trick and salutes Salah every time he sees him for the rest of the movie.
I’d like to talk about this scene for a bit if you don’t mind.
An amazing mixture of cultures and references cooperate to produce the joy you receive watching it. You like the scene because the good guy’s using his wit and courage to help the poor helpless people, a classic situation famous for getting people’s admiration and engagement, as people like watching people doing things they believe are great but are too scared or lazy to do themselves. Unlike most of Salah’s confrontations, in which he has to literally use his empty hand to neutralize his opponents’ big bodies, the scene shows you what little cleverness it takes to beat the huge hollow thick skinned hippo called the government. To emphasize the opponent’s stupidity, right before leaving Salah reveals to the manager that he’s no policeman but a “normal citizen.” The guy goes crazy, until Salah maneuvers to convince him AGAIN that he’s police. For perfection, the scene then has the floating aftertaste of the manager’s constant salutes!
I don’t think it’s unjust to say that there’s a point when Mr Karate is little too inspired by the B-movies it’s fascinated with, a little too carried away with aesthetics of commercial cinema. Zaki is singing drunkenly in a nightclub about how he’s realized how the world works, it’s all about selling your values and ethics. The song, of a type very popular at the time, lacks authenticity and realism. Was it an attempt to explore this type of artistic reaching out to the audience? Or was it just a commercial box office flirtation? The song is followed by another one that’s just as bad.
I really like movies about movies. Movies that make you think about cinema and the psychological effect it has on us in relation to the world we’re living in and the way it was built. I like Tarantino movies for that reason, and have always thought of “Mr. Karate” as an earlier experiment in the same field.
It’s directed by Khan, one of my favorite directors, and Zaki’s performance is marvelous. It’s got this famous jolly song (and later spawned this awkward remake of it). It also has an additional bonus for me: the mentioning of my beloved, completely infamous hometown Kafr al-Sheikh in the first scene.