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Karate Girl (1973)


Plot: trauma transforms demure small-town girl into gun-toting angel of death.

Karateci Kiz (Karate Girl in most of the English territories, Golden Girl in certain European markets, and Golden Karate Girl in most of Scandinavia) is a peculiar regional variant on an established (and often imitated) formula. At heart it’s a convergence of at least two, possibly three, cinematic trends popular at the international box office of the day. It combines the first half of The Last House on the Left (1972) (Italy in particular took to imitating it with zest around this time) with the damaged vigilante subplot straight out of Thriller – En Grym Film (1973). If that weren’t enough of a volatile combination in and of itself director Orhan Aksoy spices the entire thing up with some pretty decent kung fu as Hong Kong martial arts imports were all the rage around this time. It’s not exactly TNT Jackson (1974) or Cleopatra Wong (1978) nor was that ever the intention. What makes it different from other rank exploitation from this period is that it does so on a basis of filial piety and traditional values of warm relationships, friendship, family, and the stoic belief in all things ending well.

Every country has its superstars. For Turkey that was Filiz Akin. Along with Türkan Şoray, Hülya Koçyiğit and Fatma Girik, she was one of the four queens of the Yeşilçam (Green Pine) era or the Golden Age of Turkish cinema. A bright young talent of a generation out to innovate domestic cinema and beloved at home for her "noble, modern, urban and elegant face".

Thanks to her academic background Filiz worked at the Ankara branch of American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines. In her two years there she rose to head of the marine branch. It’s here that she became fluent in English, French, and even a bit of Italian. During said employment she attended Ankara University, Faculty of Language, History and Geography for a semester studying archeology. After winning an Artist magazine contest she debuted in Akasyalar Açarken (1962), one of six movies she appeared in that year. IMDB meanwhile insists that her debut was Sahte nikah (1962). Filiz was wed to screenwriter, producer, and director Türker İnanoğlu in 1964 but the two separated somewhere in 1974. After another marriage that lasted from 1982 to 1993 Akin married Turkish diplomat Sönmez Köksal with president Süleyman Demirel and Speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey Hüsamettin Cindoruk in attendance. The two have been together ever since.

Filiz appeared in a staggering 122 films (mostly dramas, comedies, and romances) in the thirteen years between 1962 and 1975. Among many others she could be seen in Çitkirildim (1966) with Cüneyt Arkin, as well as Fadime (1970) with Cihangir Gaffari. Gaffari would make appearances in Shaft's Big Score! (1972), The Demons (1973), Hundra (1983), and Bloodsport (1988). One of Akin’s more remembered roles was that in Istanbul Tatili (1968), a domestic remake of the Hollywood blockbuster Roman Holiday (1953). She won the Golden Orange Award Best Actress for Ankara Ekspresi (1971) on the International Antalya Film Festival that year. As near as we can tell Karate Girl was the only exploitationer Filiz ever partook in, but it’s one worth remembering.

While not many names in the rest of the cast stand out, two among the credited karatekas went on to have long careers in Turkish politics. Little is known about Hazır Lamistir or what has become of him but the same cannot be said of Orhan and Ahmet Doğan, if the two men two men appearing here are indeed the very same. Given their association with Akin and Ankara University being their alma mater it’s all a bit much to write off as mere coincidence. Orhan Doğan would be elected to the Turkish Parliament in 1991 and later join the centre-left Democracy Party (DEP). He would proliferate himself as an ardent defender of Kurdish rights and serve as a member of the Grand National Assembly from 1991-1994. In 1994 he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for his association with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partîya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK). As a political prisoner he was the subject of the Hasan Kiraç television documentary Demokrasi Yokusu in 1997. After his release in 2004 he helped found the Democratic Society Party (DTP). Ahmet Dogan served as the chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) from 1990 to 2013. It's also entirely possible that Orhan Doganer was just one of the production's martial arts instructors.

Zeynep (Filiz Akin) is a simple countrygirl making an honest living as a florist in Istanbul selling the flowers that her old father (Nubar Terziyan) grows on his farm on the outskirts of town. Since losing her mother at an early age Zeynep has been rendered mute. Together with her father she has been duly saving money for an expensive surgery that her doctor (Yilmaz Gruda) believes will restore her speech. Meanwhile on the other end of town a vicious and assorted gang of thieves, extortionists, rapists, and murderers - Ferruh Durak (Bülent Kayabaş), Riza Çakoz (Kudret Karadag), Kasim Arpaci (Oktay Yavuz), and Cafer Durak (Necati Er) – led by Bekir Bulut (Hayati Hamzaoglu) escape trial and confinement by murdering on-duty cop Hasan Çetin (Ahmet Kostarika) and disappearing into the thick blackness of the night. Insinuating themselves into the homestead Zeynep’s father makes nothing of the fast-talking band of vagrants naively imparting their present situation with them. Bulut and his bandits ransack the place, steal the savings, and callously murder the old man for his trouble when he offers up token but futile resistance. When Zeynep returns home after a hard day’s work she not only finds her father’s lifeless body but to make matters worse she’s violated by Bulut and left for dead. The trauma is so profound that Zeynep regains her speech. She vows to avenge her dear father and those that robbed her of her innocence.

One day menial laborer Murat Akdogan (Ediz Hun) comes looking for work on the farm only to find Zeynep practice target shooting. Law enforcement and the authorities have been powerless to apprehend the extremely dangerous and fugitive convicts. Bulut in the meantime has reconnected with his former paramour (Sema Yaprak) unaware that Murat is a cop working deeply undercover to locate and arrest him and his gang of bovine brutes. Zeynep on her part becomes gradually aware of Murat’s true motives as he instructs her in target shooting, mortal combat, and enrolls her in the local karate dojo. Zeynep and Murat fall in love and eventually are wed. On her wedding day Bekir and his bandits crash the ceremony leaving Murat among the victims. Torn by trauma and grief Zeynep enrolls in police academy and continues training in karate. Upon successfully graduating from both she systematically hunts down each of the perpetrators. Trapping Bekir in his studio apartment she unleashes her righteous vengeance upon him for taking the lives of not only her old father but her husband as well.

Produced by İnanoğlu’s own Erler Film and made with participation of the Istanbul police force Karate Girl was a vehicle for Filiz Akin to undergo a sort of Soledad Miranda or Edwige Fenech-like reinvention. Apparently rushed into production to coast off the notoriety of Thriller – A Grim Film (1973) Orhan Aksoy, a celebrated specialist of melodramas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was just about the last person you’d expect to be directing something like this. Aksoy was one of the forefathers of 'muhalle' cinema, or the Turkish equivalent of the German Heimatfilme, and as such he was a reliable provider in wholesome family entertainment. Twice had he been given the Best Film Award on the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. Once in 1970 for Kinali Yapincak (1969) and then again in 1973 for Hayat mi Bu? (1973). To say that Karate Girl was something not in his usual wheelhouse would be putting in mildly. Whether the same rung true for writers Fuat Özlüer and Erdogan Tünas we honestly can’t say but given the company they kept it’s entirely plausible. Most of the music was lifted from another production, although various blogs over the years have failed to mention which. Assistant director Samim Utku would become a prolific writer in Turkish television and build a respectable career as a director. Was this a last-ditch effort on İnanoğlu’s part to save his failing marriage to Akin? Not many contemporary reviews seem interested to delve into the history of Karate Girl and the people behind it.

The similarities between the two are startlingly distinct, but so are the differences. Both feature protagonists rendered mute by trauma and Madeleine/Frigga as well as Zeynep both come from the countryside. Both are triggered into a homicidal frenzy by the loss of a loved one (Madeleine/Frigga loses her best friend, Zeynep her father) and both undergo weapons, martial arts, and close quarter combat training by a police officer friendly to their plight. Also not unimportant is that both women experience sexual trauma at the hand of their wrongdoers. Whereas Thriller – A Grim Film (1973) relished in showing just that in explicit detail it is implied rather than shown here. Where Karate Girl differs most significantly is during its second half. Here it suddenly changes into a procedural once Zeynep completes her police training. She starts tracking down and apprehending the perpetrators one by one. That being different the conclusion is mostly the same, only does Zeynep bloodily dispose herself of the main culprit in what looks like an exact re-enactment of Thriller’s legendary finale. In 2012 Karate Girl for a brief spell was popular on social media as the final shoot-out was bombarded to “worst death scene ever” exposing an entire new generation to it. In an interesting duality Aksoy was able to fuse muhalle values with rank exploitation. How this fared with Turkish audiences at the time is near impossible to gauge. What is certain is that it didn’t tarnish Akin nor her cleanly image or reputation. Likewise did Orhan Aksoy find incredible success with romantic comedies in the next decade.

In retrospect and with the benefit of nearly five decades of hindsight it’s puzzling that Karate Girl remains ever as obscure. This undoubtedly had a profound influence in shaping Cirio H. Santiago's Naked Vengeance (1985). At home its closest cousin was perhaps something like Cellat (1975) which gave Michael Winner’s vigilante thriller Death Wish (1974) (with Charles Bronson) a Turkish make-over. Once divorced from İnanoğlu Akin continued with wholesome dramatic and comedic roles. Never again would she lower herself to rank exploitation like this. Just how much of an anomaly Karate Girl is for most of the principal players in front and behind the cameras is mystifying and interesting enough all by itself. It makes you pine for a tell-all confessional on what was happening behind the scenes while it was being conceptualized. Turkey has a long and storied history in playing fast and loose with international licensing and distribution rights, and the country had a prolific exploitation industry that was even more shameless than that of the Philippines. Karate Girl is the exception and a curiosity as it was an exploitationer made by otherwise respectable people cashing in on what seemed like a lucrative trend. Is this the greatest that Turkish exploitation has ever wrought? Probably not but it’s damn entertaining.