Catch The Fair One had its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2022
At the beginning of Josef Kubota Wladyka’s Catch The Fair One, we see Kali Reis, real-life world champion boxer in two weight classes, removing her cheek and tongue piercings, having her hands strapped and her gloves put on, sparring with her trainer to warm up, and waiting alone in a corridor to go out for her next match – and then she wakes up, lying on a dormitory bed, her piercings still in and her mouth bleeding from the razor blade that she has hidden in it.
It is a moment of disillusionment. For with her awakening the veil is lifted and we realise that this is not in fact Kali Reis, but a character whom she is playing: the similarly named Kaylee, similarly of half-Native half-Cape Verdean descent, and similarly an IBO champion. Both actor and character are fighters, but Kaylee’s career has of late been marked less by victory than great loss: back injuries have forced her out of the ring; she has had troubles with drug addiction; she waits tables and can barely afford food for herself; she has become estranged from her mother Jaya (Kimberley Guerrero); her girlfriend left her two years ago; and – the trigger for many of these problems – also two years ago, her beloved younger sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero) vanished, presumed abducted. When we see Kaylee, on the mat (but not in the ring) and bleeding, the trauma runs deep.
Still, Kaylee is not one to stay down or to give up without a fight. With support from her trainer Brick (Shelly Vincent), Kaylee has decided to go undercover in the local sex-trafficking ring, hoping that it will lead her to Weeta. They know that she is coming, but they do not reckon on her ruthless determination, born of desperation – and they do not expect her to hit so hard. As Kaylee launches her messy assault, Catch The Fair One falls somewhere between Megan Griffiths’ Eden (2012), Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017) and Paul Barbeau’s We Had It Coming (2019). Kaylee is driven singularly to find her sister, and is not trying to save the world or to bring down the patriarchal structures of this criminal organisation let alone of society – and so her fast-unravelling story of recovery and revenge might seem very simple. Yet when Kasylee shakes this particular tree, all kinds of American ugliness and injustice are exposed, ensuring that this is a film with a wider sociopolitical resonance.
In her search for Weeta, Kaylee quickly sees her own Native-American identity and heritage reduced to a coded sexual enticement for paying johns. Race is crucial here, for it will turn out that the sex-trafficking organisation is an all-white family business whose highly profitable empire has been built on the horrific exploitation, indeed the literal enslavement, of minorities and the marginalised. It is as though the whole history of American capital is being shown here in microcosm, as Kaylee’s own poverty contrasts with the increasingly opulent properties that she encounters on her violent ascent through the gang’s hierarchy. At its apex is an aloof, indifferent, abusive patriarch (Kevin Dunn) whose very name, Willie, signifies his phallocentric status, and whose activities are confined to beating his own son, and consuming all alone in a massive dining room. His son (Daniel Henshall) has an Asian wife (Tiffany Chu) who is tolerated by his parents, and whom he treats as little more than a mail-order chattel. As Kaylee infiltrates this wintry world of vice and viciousness, her indignant rampage will be conducted like a counterterrorist operation: she carries out abductions and killings of her own, and resorts to that shameful tool of American invasion, waterboarding, very quickly demonstrating both its barbarity and its hideous ineffectiveness.
So Catch The Fair One seems to be containing, within its little, personal story, a bigger, national one – and if it comes across as a true underdog tale, its ring compositional ending, taking us back to Kaylee’s preparation for a big ring fight, carefully frames such David-vs-Goliath triumphalism as mere wish-fulfilment fantasy from which there must be another awakening. For here even the comforting balms of a Hollywood happy ending eventually give way to a bleaker reality wherein all the promises of the American dream prove elusive, even illusory.
strap: Josef Kubota Wladyka’s drama/thriller uses an amateur undercover operation against a sex-trafficking ring to expose broader American injustices
© Anton Bitel