‘Crying Fist’, directed by Ryoo Seung-wan and starring Korea’s most feted actor Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) alongside hot new prospect Ryoo Seung- beom, to be released in cinema’s nationwide on the 2nd December 2005. ‘Crying Fist’ is nominally a boxing movie and it does mine many of the genre’s more obvious elements but this being a modern Korean movie, adds some real emotional twists. At its heart, the movie is about the basic human need for self-respect and a sense of worth within society. To this end the film follows the fortunes of two disparate characters, one younger, one older, currently at the lowest point in their lives, offered the chance of moral and physical redemption through a high-profile boxing tournament.
In the red corner we have Choi Min-sik playing Kang, a former Asian games boxing silver medallist now bitter and virtually destitute after a business deal he invested in has turned sour. This impacts upon his personal life and as the film opens his marriage is on the rocks and his relationship with his young son is tenuous. His attempt at gainful employment is one of the bizarre twists that punctuate modern Korean cinema and makes Korean films so thought provoking and rewarding. He literally stands in the market square and offers himself up as a human punch bag to passers by who have a grievance they need to get off of their chest, from jilted girlfriends to frustrated businessmen, Kang is prepared to let them beat crap out of him for a fee.
The premise is both heart rending and funny in a deeply black way and, once again, Choi Min-sik is superb as the downtrodden Kang. His despair is etched on every line of his lived in face and his performance is a subtle combination of resignation and defiance culminating in a renewed determination to prove himself to his (now) estranged wife and alienated son. Kang, as played by Choi, is every boxer on the skids intensified and given heart, a modern reworking of Jon Voight’s ‘Champ’, and such is the quality of Choi’s performance that we suffer every indignity and triumph with him.
In the blue corner we have Ryoo Seung-beom, playing Yoo, a petty street villain with a knockout punch, a stubborn streak and attitude to spare.
Deep down inside beats the heart of a champion but it is clouded by a self-destructive mixture of apathy and teenage angst. Despite his fathers best efforts Yoo’s crimes escalate to the point that a bodged mugging of an old debt collector (again blackly blackly humorous) ends in a prison stretch and a life that seems to have no future. As mentioned previously, the cliches are here, as the head guard sees something worth developing in Yoo and convinces him to try out for the prison boxing team.
With such a fine actor as Choi Min-sik as your co-star you need to be on the top of your game and Ryoo seung-beom is never less than riveting in capturing the mass of contradictions within Yoo. His is a character that you should dislike but his layered performance has you not only empathising with but ultimately rooting for him as his aggressive energies at first seem uncontrollable and unfocussed. It is a performance that, in years gone by, would have drawn favourable comparison with a young Marlon Brando or James Dean and Ryoo offers a strong counter- point story of wasted youth to that of the washed up boxer.
Overall, however, this is a movie about hope, about regeneration, and about the rediscovery of self-worth through having something to strive for, in this case boxing. At its simplest this movie is about the need for a goal in life, something to aim for to make sense of existence and as Kang says in his unintentionally hilarious ‘meet my father’ day at school, boxing really is a metaphor for all life’s hardships.
With focus and purpose both Kang and Yoo become new men, re-energised by the desire to win the boxing tournament albeit for totally different reasons.
One of the strengths of this movie is the mixed emotion that it breeds into you. By the final third you know both men are on a collision course in the final but because of their superb performances you don’t want either to lose. The director has set this up perfectly and to be fair it would have been easy to play safe and go for the draw but Ryoo Seung-wan keeps the courage of his conviction and there is a winner, making for a far more satisfying denouement. The boxing is solid and pretty convincing and ‘Crying Fist’ is one of the few films that shows the actual draining nature of fighting beyond the obvious pain of taking punches. There is a realistic sense of fatigue and ragged breath and both actors (as is the Korean way) spared themselves no pain to recreate the boxing scenes as realistically as possible.
Once again Korea has come up with a very satisfying film, although I must say that I found the back story and the set up in the first two thirds of the movie actually more rewarding than the final third’s boxing climax. Here the film veers dangerously close to Hollywood cliché and ‘Rocky’ style sentimentality. Before that, however, you have a film of power and poignancy, fuelled by a pair of first class performances and a director prepared to let their characters stories unfold at a leisurely pace. The result is a very good boxing movie but an excellent character study that says much about the human condition.