Kang Tae-shik is an aging boxer with his glory days behind him. Although a silver medallist in the Asian Games in 1990, he’s now a poor man chased by debt-collectors and with little to offer his increasingly distant wife and son. He spends his days on the streets letting passers-by punch him for money.
Yoo Sang-hwan is a young thug who spends his days committing crimes and running with a gang. When the robbery of a debt-collector turns nasty, Sang-hwan is arrested and given a five year prison sentence. His father is heartbroken and encourages his son to improve himself. After getting into trouble for fighting in the prison, Sang-hwan is encouraged by the wardens to learn how to box as a way to control his anger and frustration.
Both Kang Tae-shik and Yoo Sang-hwang struggle with how to regain control of their lives. Through boxing the two of them begin their separate journeys towards self-respect.
It’s easy to recommend Crying Fist simply on the fact that it’s directed by Ryoo Seung-wan (director of Arahan (2004)) and it stars Choi Min-sik (Oldboy (Park Chan-wook / 2003 ) and Ryoo Seung-beom (Arahan). With talent like this involved the film should be very good.
And it is.
Inspired by the true stories of two boxers, Crying Fist follows two very different men – one young and one old – going no-where with their lives except in a downward spiral. The two tales are kept completely separate from one another (there’s not even any Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino / 1994) style cross-over moments) and the main leads only actually meet on screen in the inevitable final boxing fight at the end of the film. At first the two stories sit together uncomfortably, as they seem to have little in common. Choi Min-sik is painfully good as Kang Tae-shik, the skint and over-the-hill boxer who leads a merger existence letting members of the public punch him for money. It’s not a lot of fun to watch a man who believes his best is behind him. After introducing Tae-shik, the film then suddenly switches over to the story of Yoo Sang-hwang (played by Ryoo Seung-beom) and it’s a real gear change as his story has a real energy. Sadly, this has the effect of rendering Tae-sik’s story as the less immediately exciting of the two, so when the film cuts between the two narratives it feels very uneven.
Eventually the two stories level out together. There’s no real parallels between them with regards to plot, but as soon as each man identifies the need and the will to be able to find the focus and determination to pull themselves up it becomes clearer that these two men are travelling the same journey, albeit on different paths. If all of this sounds like it’s hard work, it is – both for the men onscreen and for us the viewer. Where Crying Fist really shines is that the harder the men work the greater their rewards. And the greater for us as the viewers too.
A large percentage of Crying Fist’s running time is spent reaching the point where our central protagonists make this decision to better themselves. Neither Tae-shik or Sang-hwan are immediately likeable figures. It shows a great confidence on director Ryoo’s part that he doesn’t allow us as viewers come to really like either of them until the point that they actually start to like themselves.
Although Crying Fist is marketed as a boxing film, it’s essentially a boxing drama with the majority of the time spent outside of the ring – there’s very little ring-side action in the first half of the film. When the fight scenes do arrive, they are quite impressive and mange to wisely avoid most of the cinematic boxing sterotypes. Both Choi Min-sik and Ryoo Seung-beom looks quite handy in the ring, but it’s their determination rather than their skills which come across very well. Punches often really connect and this adds to the gritty feel of the film, as these real punches are sharper and sting more than big ‘Hollywood’ shots, and they really look like they are slugging it out against their opponents. Crying Fist doesn’t avoid all of the boxing clichés (there’s bound to be a fair amount of eye-rolling when the inevitable boxing montage begins) but this is in no way a by-the-numbers sports movie.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan seems to subvert genre-conventions in his films and Crying Fist proves to be no exception. Sports movies are usually pretty clear in who we should be hoping will win. That’s certainly not the case here. As we’ve spent so much time with both of these characters, there’s no ‘good’ guy or ‘bad’ guy and both are underdogs. Instead of having one main boxer to get excited by, we are left rooting for both characters – but in the knowledge that there can only be one winner. There’s a dangerous point when it’s quite clearly signalled what the conclusion to the fight may be – but luckily this sign-posting doesn’t really undermine the moment itself. Wanting both boxers to win actually makes for quite an uncomfortable – but refreshing – viewing experience. It’s not a Rocky-like run to the end – simply because both fighters cannot possibly win.
If the very end of the tale verges on the melodramatic, then this is forgiveable in a film which seems to intentionally steer clear of any cheap emotional tricks and does manage to build a complex emotional climax. As well as the strong leads, Crying Fist boasts a supporting cast which is very strong and surprisingly well developed. In addition to all of this there’s some breathtaking cinematography and a soundtrack which really helps build key scenes. It’s a pretty solid film throughout.
Although it feels like hard work to begin with, Crying Fist has a lot to recommend. Regular Korean cinema viewers will by now always expect great things from Choi Min-sik, but Ryoo Seung-beom manages to go toe-to-toe with him both in the ring and in the acting stakes as he delivers a hell of a performance that is a million miles away from his goofy Arahan character. Crying Fist is not a perfect film -the pacing does feel slightly wrong and some unsubtle sign-posting towards the conclusion is unnecessary – but if the up-hill battle that the two main protagonists go through to the end of the film doesn’t soften your heart at least a bit, then you really don’t deserve to see a film as good as this.
주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist)
Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan
Produced by Park Jae-hyeong, Im Seung-yong
Written by Ryoo Seung-wan, Jeon Cheol-hong
Starring Choi Min-sik, Ryoo Seung-beom, Im Won-hee, Byun Hee-bong, Na Moon-hee
Crying Fist Image © Sio film Co. Ltd., Bravo Entertainment