The Invisible Fight seen at the Imagine Film Festival, 2023
The Invisible Fight (Nähtamatu võitlus) begins at a literal border. Three Chinese bandits (Johnny X. Wang, Kyro Wavebourne and fight choreographer Eddie Tsai) float down hand-in-hand from the sky, and leap across the treetops for a view of the Soviet guard post at the USSR-China border. As the sun sets, they jump the concrete wall and use gravity-defying wire fu to kill all the soldiers stationed there. All, that is, except shaven-headed Estonian conscript Rafael (Ursel Tilk). Sure the intruders beat him up a little, but before leaving, they also bow to him respectfully and bequeath him a pair of nunchaku. As the border post’s dying commander observes to Rafael, “I guess God has other plans for you.”
The Chinese fighters are transgressing borders both literal and metaphorical. For not only does their encroachment from the East reflect the Bruce Lee craze that was sweeping the West in 1973 when this film is set, but they are also, incongruously, practising their ancient martial art while sporting the long hair, leather jackets, dark glasses, gaudy crucifixes, flared jeans and platform shoes of the times, while – even more incongruously – choreographing their moves to Black Sabbath’s The Wizard (1970), booming out from the portable cassette player which one of them carries.
We next catch up with Rafael back living with his mother Zinaida (Mari Abel) and repairing cars in his small Estonian town – except that his encounter at the border has changed him forever. For he has adopted the strutting attitudes and heavy metal postures (if not quite the martial skills) of his absent masters, and seeks someone local to teach him to “become bad ass at black metal kung fu”. Of course, in this era of Soviet oppression, the now long-maned Raphael’s appearance and activities could easily see him jailed – but Rafael is a natural rebel and rule-breaker, always clownishly kicking up a scene wherever he goes, turning the head of unhappy Rita (Ester Kuntu), and improbably exceeding the speed limit in his bright-red ZAZ-968.
When Rafael’s car breaks down in front of an Eastern Orthodox monastery, he finds a community of men whose very beliefs place them similarly at odds with the state, and who, with their God-sent powers of kung fu, represent the Soviet equivalent of the Shaolin temple. Rafael surrenders to the guidance of head monk Melhisedek (Sepa Tom) and the wise old starets Nafanail (Indrek Sammul), whose patterned robes and hood make him resemble The Wizard from Raphael’s favourite song, even as kindly Nafanail’s disciple and would-be successor Irinei (Kaarel Pogga) starts to see Rafael less as pupil than rival. Our unlikely hero will learn humiliation and find faith, perform miracles and ultimately travel full circle in his spiritual journey to a secular, fight-free world of domestic love.
Contrasting with the monochrome of writer/director Rainer Sarnet’s previous oddity November (2017), The Invisible Fight unfolds in vibrant colours, but it likewise deploys genre elements to present an exaggerated, absurdist moving icon of the human condition. It parades its contradictions to endlessly humorous effect, as metal and choral musics clash, as Church comes up against State, as East meets West, and as a hard-rocking, high-kicking sensibility constantly risks slipping out of sync with more theological preoccupations. Like Estonia’s answer to Nicolas Cage, Tilk plays Rafael as a grinning holy fool, a misfit not quite of this or any world. Yet for all its comic stylings, this eccentrically unhinged feature nails the sanctitude of everyday living. Set in a nation whose borders have long been an issue of contention, in a period when Estonia was under Russian occupation, Sarnet’s genre-crossing feature finds its own peculiar transcendence, recognising no boundary between the material and the spiritual, the ascetically devout and the irreverently unorthodox.
strap: Rainer Sarnet’s hard-rocking, genre-crossing kung fu comedy sends a holy fool on an (un)orthodox spiritual journey in occupied Estonia
© Anton Bitel