Polite Society (2023) Review

Polite Society has a winningly insolent attitude

Slamming genre conventions in the face with a reverse spinning roundhouse kick, Nida Manzoor’s debut feature fuses kung-fu, Jane Austen and Bollywood conventions in a chaotic mash-up that almost feels like a cross-cultural homage to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. It’s a feisty, freewheeling comedy action coming-of-age saga that gleefully sticks a middle finger up to POLITE SOCIETY.

The plot revolves around two sisters: Lena (Ritu Arya), a disillusioned art school dropout reevaluating her life choices and Ria (Priya Kansara), who nurtures an ambition to become a stuntwoman in the mould of her idol Eunice Huthart. When the Khan sisters are invited to an Eid party hosted by Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha), the self-appointed matriarch of the local Pakistani community, Ria discovers to her horror that that Lena is being lined up for an arranged marriage to Raheela’s son Salim (Akshay Khanna).

The satire in POLITE SOCIETY slices through cultural norms with the precision of a well-thrown ninja star. The film’s commentary on arranged marriages and the diaspora experience cuts deep, packing both laughs and poignant observations in almost every scene. Its fantasy elements—think dramatic martial arts showdowns in the least expected moments—serve to amplify these themes, making the societal critique as entertaining as it is sharp although this is where it risks losing some of its audience as the kung-fu fantasies gradually reveal themselves to be improbably, diegetically real.

Nimra Bucha, reprising many elements of her villainous turn in MS MARVEL brings a deliciously sly menace to her role, commanding the screen with every calculated move and menacing smile, her ability to pivot from civility to sinister and back in the blink of an eye crucial to maintaining the movie’s ambiguity around what is really going on. The rest of the supporting cast also shine, infusing their characters with authenticity and wry humour that helps keep the movie on the rails even as it leaps acrobatically around audience expectations and even narrative credibility.

Directorially, POLITE SOCIETY is a winning blend of chaos and charm. The film transitions from heartfelt sisterly moments to absurd martial arts action without missing a beat, creating a spectacle that’s as visually arresting as it is emotionally rewarding. The sisterly bond, in particular, is portrayed with warmth and wit, grounding the fantastical elements in a relatable struggle for personal identity and independence.

POLITE SOCIETY is a genre-blending romp that offers a fresh take on the age-old battle between tradition and self-determination, with a uniquely British Pakistani perspective. It marries the decorum of societal norms with the unbridled chaos of intergenerational rebellion and martial arts, wrapped up in a gentle satirical bow that pokes fun at everything from cultural stereotypes to cinematic clichés. Like its central heroine, not all of its punches and kicks land as intended, but the film is so joyfully likeable that you won’t really mind.