Korean fight picture. So you know it's gonna be brutal. Not that the Korean people are indigenously any more brutal than anyone else. However, between the Japanese, Americans, Russians and their own various home-grown military dictatorships, these people were brutalized for the better part of the twentieth century, and that kind of thing doesn't just go away. Fortunately South Korean filmmakers have been sublimating this brutality into their work over the last decade or so, creating something like a national catharsis. Don't get me wrong, they also crank out their share of sicky-sweet, sentimental fare. The cumulative result is a national cinema that offers a broader emotional range than its neighbors to the north and south.
So yeah, Crying Fist (2004). I didn't get a chance to see it when I was writing Asia Shock, so it's not included in my profile of the great Choi Min-sik, one of the picture's two stars (the other being Ryoo Seung-beom). No one who's seen Oldboy (2003) is likely to ever forget Choi Min-sik, Korea's own Lawrence Olivier/Robert DeNiro/Gerard Depardieu. If you check the years, you'll shrewdly deduce that Choi was still down at his fighting weight from the Oldboy shoot when he made this film (he's been much pudgier on other outings). That said, he's still 42, not a good age to be staging a boxing comeback as his character, Kang Tae-shik, plans to do in the film, particularly when he's been making his living on the street as a human punching bag. Literally. For 10,000 won (roughly $8.50) you can wail away (he supplies the boxing gloves). Yep, he's pretty down and out, and this daily abuse isn't helping his head -- he's starting to show signs of brain damage.
Then there's the parallel story of Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-beom). He's a petty criminal with natty dreads and a beard who finds himself in the slammer (minus the hair) after a mugging goes horribly awry. The prison population soon learns that he's nobody's bitch after he chews off a guy's ear Tyson-style on his first day. He's immediately recruited into the boxing team where perhaps his natural talent for violence can be honed and refined -- see where this is going? Of course Yoo and Kang are on a collision course, but just how they meet I'll leave for you to discover.
While I'm not particularly drawn to the genre, I thought this was a great boxing film. Gritty, bloody, populated with a fascinating array of urban losers and grimy locations -- you can almost smell the garbage and B.O. The supporting cast is great, featuring Oh Dai-soo (A Bloody Aria), Nah Moon-hee (The Quiet Family) and the diminutive character actor Ki Joo-bong (he's been in everything -- one of those "oh yeah, that guy" guys).
Style-wise, Crying Fist changes up on you -- it gradually shifts from elliptical jump-cut indy at the beginning to a more conventional ending, but it all works out. I have one minor complaint, but it concerns the ending, so I'll have to sit on it. I'll wait 'til you see it and then I'll tell you ...
Reminder: Ozu's "I Was Born, But ..." is at Japan Society this evening - Japan Society Film Program's Monthly Classics Series Presents *I Was Born, But . . .* / *Umarete wa Mita Keredo* Directed by Yasujiro Ozu With Tatsuo Sait...
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