2005Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Seung-beom Ryu, Ho-jin Jeon
t takes stamina to go the distance with most boxing movies. As masculine-melodramas, they favour strong, silent types that do their talking in the ring—repressed hard men types like Sly Stallone and Russell Crowe; survival of the fittest themes means enduring round-after-round of emotional and physical obstacles. At least Asian cinema has a knack for unorthodox ringside drama. Takeshi Kitano’s bleakest view of modern Japan was expressed in the grueling regime of Kids Return; Shinya Tsukamoto followed up his groundbreaking body-horror Tetsuo films with the bloody drama of Tokyo Fist; now Old Boy star Choi Min-sik, last seen offering his pound of flesh to settle up an age-old vendetta, sacrifices his body and mind in an effort to reclaim his life.
Gang Tae-shik was a one-time Asian Games boxing medalist, but is now a bum, a chain-smoker, a barely-human slob, who spits abuse at his wife in front of his son. With no other way to make money, he becomes a street attraction at a shopping mall, letting passers by slug him for spare change. Elsewhere, teenage troublemaker Yu- Sang-hwan is undergoing a comparably brutal ordeal in prison, joining the boxing team to focus his anger, but lacking the attention to keep his guard up. Both men are rotting away until training for a boxing championship offers both some chance of meager redemption.
This being a boxing movie, the final denouement is more or less about which is the last man standing, but the preceding two hours is nuanced to a degree not seen in Western fight movies for many years. The camera does not present viewpoints as much as lurk in the background, presenting a fly on the wall of domestic disintegration; in boxing terms, the effect is not of sitting on the shoulder of the fighters, but of seeing them wandering through life like stalking round an empty ring. Recent Korean and Taiwanese film present a unique snapshot of modern capitalist societies, with stunning, soaring office buildings side by side with the rotting rubbish chucked out from business restaurants; future investments co-existing with discarded pasts. Gang Tae-shik is simply one such piece of trash, cast out by his wife, getting drunk on the street, and sleeping in a shack behind a fluorescent sign. His battle is not just in the ring, but to emerge from the street garbage where he finds himself living.
It’s a stark contrast to the inside of the ring. The final fight scenes are pumped full of colour, with shining sweat and gushing blood, with the fight a whirr of movement and panic. The fighters walk into the ring as men, yet by the final rounds are as vulnerable as kids getting beaten up by the school bully. Crying Fist’s emphasis is not just on how far the men have climbed, but on how far they can once again fall.
Choi Min-sik is once again superb as an aging, weathered man, whose pain is etched ever deeper on his face as his odyssey progresses. Unlike Takeshi Kitano, a similarly stony-faced statue of an actor, Choi Min-sik has an air of childishness about him, with his hair sticking out to the sides and his hang-dog cheeks. It’s the mixture of tough and tender that makes the protagonists endure; by laying bare the fragility of its twin heroes, the way they rebuild their fractured lives is all the more keenly felt. Meanwhile, the gloriously ragged Choi Min-sik, the fighting clown who wobbles but never goes down, is becoming the heart, body, and soul of Korean action cinema.
By: Derek Walmsley
Published on: 2005-12-14