'Fight Girls': Americans Take on Muay Thai

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Seven American women recently traveled to Thailand to challenge the local reigning champions in a form of martial arts known as muay thai. A film crew chronicled the journey, and the result is a new documentary called Fight Girls, premiering Monday night on the Oxygen cable network. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein offers a review.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. Earlier this year a group of American woman traveled to Thailand to compete in a martial arts tournament. It provided the basis for the documentary Fight Girls, which premiers tonight on the Oxygen cable channel. Here is TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

Splice together movies like Million Dollar Baby, The Karate Kid, and the last four Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks and you would end up with something like Fight Girls. Only this is actually a true story about an old Thai master out to prove his coaching skills by recruiting American woman to fight in his homeland.

How he chooses and trains these women is part journey of self-discovery, part comic misadventure. And yet the suspense the documentary builds over how the fighters will fair pins you to the ropes and packs a wallop. The fight style of choice is Muay Thai, a particularly violent strain of martial arts that allows you to strike with hands, elbows, shins and knees.

That women are delivering this barrage of blows only adds to the novelty of the documentary. As fighter Lisa King explains, being a female Muay Thai fighter comes with certain gender challenges.

Ms. LISA KING (Fight Girls): There's a lot of things that are taken into consideration being a female fighter. One, you don't want to put your hair in a ponytail in any way, shape or form. Judges look for effective aggressiveness. You can have an opponent just swinging at you at the angle they're looking at, if they're connecting, but if you've got your hair in a ponytail and you're hair is flip-flopping back, it looks like they've actually hit you harder than what they have.

So I'm kind of having to pick and choose where my hair's going to go. It's either going to go long in braids or it's going to go in the center of my head so she can't grab onto it either way. I don't want it to become a handle for her or a tool to use against me.

WALLENSTEIN: King and her fellow combatants are an interesting lot. You might expect these women are a rare breed. But Fight Girls underscores how utterly normal they are. Who would've thought the girl next door kicks ass for a living. But their mysterious mentor, Master Toddy, is right out of central casting. Blustery, yet tender, this former champion seems to delight in keeping his charges off-balance with weird training techniques. In this scene, Master Toddy has the women fighting blindfolded on bubble wrap.

(Soundbite of TV show, Fight Girls)

MASTER TODDY (Fight Girls): You don't need to see. Use memory to hear, to hear. Okay? In my country we fight a lot. They use dry leaves, the dry leaves. Anybody walk, we know where you are. If they kick you with a left kick, you're going to remember it. If the noise - if they start to sweep the leg to kick you, oh, do feel that? (Unintelligible) coming at you, you feel that, they're going to attack. Do you understand?

(Soundbite of music)

WALLENSTEIN: Regrettably the lives of these fighters' Thai counterparts are barely broached. But it's not difficult to understand why. Fight Girls finds subjects who command the cameras attention. Their quest to be the best may be something of a movie cliché, but this documentary renders it fresh again.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: The documentary Fight Girls debuts tonight on the cable channel Oxygen. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter. He is also co-host of Square Off on the TV Guide Channel.

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