In knockout thriller "Catch the Fair One," a boxer infiltrates a ring of human traffickers

Salon spoke with director Josef Kubota Wladyka about making his stunningly brutal, unexpected yet "inevitable" film

Published June 14, 2021 6:16PM (EDT)

Kali Reis in "Catch the Fair One" (Tribeca Film Festival)
Kali Reis in "Catch the Fair One" (Tribeca Film Festival)

"Catch the Fair One," written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, is a gripping thriller, and — to use its boxing metaphor — leaves viewers with the experience of having received some real body blows. The film, which received its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, has Kaylee (Kali Reis), a boxer, infiltrating a ring of human traffickers to rescue her missing sister, Weeta (Mainaku Borrer). 

Kaylee, who sports cheek piercings and sleeps with a razor in her mouth, is down on her luck. She wraps up uneaten food in the diner where she works and hasn't fought a match for two years. When she makes the difficult decision to find her sister, Kaylee risks everything. She agrees to meet with Danny (Michael Drayer) who passes her on to his client Bobby (Daniel Henshall). Before long, tables are turned, and bodies start piling up.  

Wladyka exerts total control over his stylish film, maximizing the tension as Kaylee metes out justice. In her screen debut, Reis, who developed the story with Wladyka, is both relentless and magnetic. The filmmaker spoke with Salon about his intense new drama.

How did you dive into these worlds — boxing, human trafficking? What can you say about the details you include in the film to bring (the fictional) Kaylee's story to life?

It started four years ago, I was getting really into boxing myself and I've grown to love and appreciate the sport so much. Through my friend's social media page, I found K.O. [the nickname for Kali] and was immediately drawn to her. Not only is she a world-class boxer — her skill set is incredible — but also because she's an artist and activist who uses her platform and speaks on issues that she really cares about. As a filmmaker, I'm trying to do that as well. I reached out to her and asked if we could meet up and hang out. She was training for a championship fight and was going the gym three times a day. I asked if I could tag along and take pictures of her and she said OK. We went to a typical boxing gym — tough, hot, gritty, and full of sweaty dudes hitting the bags. And then there is K.O., doing her routine and blending in. Then it comes time to start sparring and one of the guys starts talking junk. She takes her cheek piercings out, puts her head gear on, jumps into the ring and starts going toe-to-toe with these guys. I was drawn to her grace and her power. I thought, we need to put this in a movie. Kali had been outspoken about the missing and Indigenous crisis in North America. I was reading about that, so we started talking about that, and collaborating as artists on a film that touches on these subjects. We both have very close relationships to our siblings and were raised by our older siblings, so we started with the initial idea of a woman searching for her sister. I invited her into the creative process to create the story and the characters together.

I appreciate that her character is Indigenous and Cape Verdian. Your film is not necessarily about race, but that topic does influence the story. Can you talk about that? 

We wanted to keep the film really simple. Kali has been travelling around the reservations, meeting people who lost loved ones and go out searching for them. She spoke at a 2018 powwow, so she is very integrated into that. But there is no way to make a film that answers or explains everything about this topic, so we wanted to take themes of pain, loss, and regret and put them on the characters' shoulders in every frame and in her behavior and mannerisms. But not make it too heavy-handed. This stuff is going on, but we wanted it to be subtle, not on the nose. K.O. said this issue hearkens back to first contact and colonization and is deep-rooted in our history. We wanted the themes and ideas to be left to the imagination of the audience.

What can you say about creating the look of the film, which is palpable, seedy, and claustrophobic?

It was important for us to have a strong visual, cinematic language to pull the audience through a tough ride with tension and suspense and leave them in a place of thinking. We wanted to get into the psychology of the character. We shot with a wide lens, but closer on Kaylee to get in her space and in her mind and feel the environment of the worlds that she is entering. We wanted to have more of a "designed" film and use the genre elements to elevate the story as well as the feelings and emotion.

The scene in the motel between Kali and Danny is pretty incredible, as is later a sequence between Kali and Bobby. Can you talk about the gender and power dynamics at play here?

K.O. worked with at-risk girls for many years, and dealt with girls who have been trafficked, so a lot of that was insight from what she was telling me and researching and learning about how that whole world works. Talking with Michael Drayer, who plays Danny, his justification is that they are just cattle; he is not looking at them like they are humans. For Kaylee, one thing that was powerful about her presence is that she can be very strong, but she can also be very vulnerable. When people get trafficked; they are propelled into a world they are not expecting. We wanted to make a film that was unpredictable but inevitable, and make the audience really feel like they are not sure what's going to happen. You are rooting for this character, and we give her a grounded [narrative] spine — she is looking for her sister, who has been gone for a while — but we are taking you on a ride and not explaining a lot. This stuff is ominous and ambiguous; we suggest not show.

The storyline even shifts at one point to make Bobby's character the focus. There is a banality of evil with him. How did you develop his character in particular and human/sex traffickers in general?   

Daniel Henshall is a really great friend of mine. We were friends before we shot that. He's in "Snowtown Murders," and his performance in that film was mind-blowing. I knew he was a very special actor. Once I invited him to do the film — and he was the first known actor, not a non-actor — and the dynamics of the film really changed once he agreed. I collaborated with all the actors. We built this guy from ground up. We made him just a guy, a dad. Let's not throw in any clichés. He is a banal guy who happens to be linked to something sinister. That's real in a lot of ways. The people who do this are not what you would think. Also, I wanted viewers to get a quick glimpse into his world to see he has a family. 

As you mentioned, Kali developed the story. How did you work with her on the character and guide her in her screen debut? 

It was a two-year collaboration. We explored scenes, improvised scenes, and played off circumstances to build the character. Obviously, there was a lot of personal, real stuff we wanted to infuse in a scene to [enhance] her performance, but also, it is a fictious character, and she doesn't talk a lot. We talked about conveying her emotion without words. It goes back to the guilt and regret she wears on her, there was a power to just putting the camera on her and just seeing her.

The film is brutally violent in places not just the grueling waterboarding scene, but the boxing scenes. What decisions did you make about depicting the violence? 

There's a cycle of violence to how people behave in certain situations. For me, what's most dramatic and interesting is when the characters are teetering on edge of doing something that is hard to look at — that's great drama, because you're conflicted. We wanted to make the audience feel that a lot of the time. How much danger is she willing to put herself in, even when she spars a heavyweight guy? We wanted to keep it matter of fact and as grounded as possible and in the reality of the circumstances. 

The film posits a moral conundrum — how far will one go to learn the truth; does killing someone justify the means; and are you willing to risk your life without closure? What are your thoughts on this? How would you behave? 

Man, you named five things that were themes of the film! I think the ending of the film sums all of this up; we wanted to take this strong, powerful warrior who can literally use her fists and put her on this crazy journey and the things she's fighting against are greater than one person. It's unpredictable and inevitable. It's a genre film, but we tip it on its head, which hopefully makes it a unique film.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Catch The Fair One Human Trafficking Interview Josef Kubota Wladyka Movies Tribeca Film Festival