‘Tsunami’: Film Review

In training for the Olympics, Iran’s taekwondo team is a viper’s nest of rivalry and political footwork in Milad Sadrameli’s feature debut ‘Tsunami.’

The fierce competition that goes along with big league sports may be a given, but rarely has it been shown onscreen as so realistically vicious and bloody as in the Iranian taekwondo drama Tsunami. Though taekwondo is pretty much dominated by South Korea, where it originated, athletes from Iran have made strong showings at the Olympic Games, and Milad Sadrameli’s feature bow shows it for the high-contact, aggressive affair it is.

In many ways, the film follows genre rules, starting with the arrival of a new-old coach who is hired to whip a dispirited team into shape for a comeback, and ending with a spectacular showdown between rivals before a screaming public. This will spell tune-out time for many casual viewers, but as the story progresses, a pervasive sense of helplessness and loss sweeps over every character, turning a simple sports film into something darker and more personal. It should make all the difference for festivals.  

The Bottom Line

A familiar sports film ends with an unexpectedly bitter kick.

Sadrameli (son of filmmaker Rasoul Sadrameli, My Second Year in College) rings a lot of interesting bells, if a little haphazardly. Just as his early documentary Varazdin Pedestrians profiled the head coach of Iran’s national soccer team, here, too, the center of the action is a legendary coach, played with dignity and old-fashioned tough love by actor and producer Alireza Shojanoori. He’s been brought back to save the undisciplined team as they prepare for the Big One. He fell into disgrace years earlier when he had to convince the brilliant young fighter Morteza (star Bahram Radan, Candle in the Wind) to throw the fight that was about to give him a shot at 2002 Olympic gold. Why? Because the winner of the match was going to have to face a fighter from Israel in the next round, and that is apparently politically inconceivable. It’s a knockout of a reason, but it’s left at that.

Morteza does as he’s told, but his spirit is broken and his career bottoms out in bare-knuckle boxing fights with punks in sleazy warehouses, all illegal, of course. Meanwhile, a new star has risen at the club. Behdad (Mehrdad Sedighian), a.k.a. Tsunami, is a cocky young champ with a control problem, and he takes his insecurity out on both Morteza (brought back to the club by the wily/guilty coach) and on his innocent girlfriend.

Indeed, the sports action isn’t limited to men. There is a fascinating subplot about Behdad’s girlfriend, a basketball champ and committed athlete who, despite her evident abilities, is snubbed by Iran’s national team. Why? Because although she was born in Iran, one of her parents is from Afghanistan. Thus she embodies two prejudices at once: She’s a woman athlete, and a half-national. Fereshteh Hosseini is exceptionally well-cast in a role that valorizes her calm intelligence. Her determination to play sports on her own terms, even if it means taking on the whole basketball federation, makes her a heroine.

Much less sympathetic is Morteza’s secret girlfriend (Rana Azadivar), an influential sports journalist who seems a bit neurotic and can’t stop plotting to get her man back into the spotlight, whatever dirty tricks he has to play. Given the fact that he’s an introverted athlete who has been getting beaten bloody every night at the underground fights, it’s a stretch to imagine what draws him to this middle-class career woman with an agenda.

Although the story ends on a crowd-pleasing victory in the ring, it’s far from triumphant when you think about it. Not a single character is a clear-cut winner. Even the fighter who takes home the prize of having earned a place at the next Olympics has a fearful little voice buzzing inside his head: The Israelis have qualified in taekwondo.

It’s a colorful sport to film, full of sudden kicks to the head and fast moves, and Sadrameli clearly enjoys recreating it onscreen. He lets out all the stops in the final fight between Morteza and Behrad who, though they are only seeing who will qualify for the national team in their weight category, are filmed like Foreman vs. Ali.

Production company: Milad Film Company
Cast: Bahram Radan, Mehrdad Sedighian, Fereshteh Hosseini, Alireza Shojanoori, Rana Azadivar, Mohammad Reza Ghaffari

Director: Milad Sadrameli
Screenwriters: Milad Sadrameli, Ali Asghari, Mohammad Reza Sadrameli
Producer: Ali Sartipi
Executive producer: Iman Moayed Tolou
Director of photography: Payman Shadmanfar
Production designer: Amir Hossein Haddad
Editor: Bahman Dehghani
Music: Christophe Rezaei
Venue: Fajr Film Festival, Iranian Film Market
World sales: Irimage

100 minutes