I must admit to approaching this film with some trepidation. After all, the only other film I’d seen by director Ryoo was Arahan, and while that was fun mindless entertaiment, I was hard-pressed to imagine him succeeding with something serious.
My fears were unfounded, because this is a genre-defying drama which succeeds wonderfully. Choi Min-shik will always be watchable, whatever the role and whatever the film, and he imbues his down-and-out boxer with real humanity. Moments that, in lesser films, would have been cliched and saccharine, here turn our expectations around and force us to see the world as it can be, rather than through the lens of stereotype.
I have many favourite scenes here, but one that stands out concerns Gang (Choi) being beaten by a gang led by a former Asian Games team-mate. Most viewers could recite the predictable path this scene would take, and they’d be wrong. Gang takes his beating, not with spitting defiance or whimpering fatalism, but with a dignity both stubborn and admirable. Choi handles the difficult task of presenting a man driven beyond his bounds but still clinging to whatever shreds remain of his past life, and handles it superbly. Not surprising, since every performance that Choi essays is marked by subtlety and nuance.
The greatest surprise, however, came from Ryoo Seung-bom, who plays Yoo Sang-hwan. Since I’d only seen him in Arahan, I must confess I didn’t have a very high opinion of his acting skills. The fact that he’s the brother of the director compounded my concerns. But his performance here is excellent: he inhabits his character with an angry energy that’s totally compellling. No sign here of the charming doofus from Arahan: Yoo is all pent-up aggression and fury, erupting at the slightest provocation.
That’s not to say that he presents just an aggressive bonehead, full of violence and braggadocio. We see that Yoo is constantly on the edge of exploding, but there’s a tension keeping him in check. Even the way he smokes, long drags that draw the burning edge right up the tube, hints at the way he’s struggling to keep from flying apart. The sheer physicality that he used in Arahan with naive enthusiasm, and which gave that film much of its energy and charm, here gives a portrait of a man constantly on the edge of explosion. Not much charm here, but a lot of energy.
Given these two fine actors, the story tells itself. There are some moments that drag, particularly those dealing with Gang, whose life is desperate and who has little reason for optimism. But these moments are few. As the focus shifts between the two desperate characters, we are entangled in their lives and problems, and when we come to the crucial fight, we find we’re facing a fight where we want both fighters to win.
I won’t tell you who wins, but I will tell you that I was surprised yet again by the quality of the fight scene. Not, I hasten to add, because of its bone-crunching and kidney-jellying effects, but because it was heartbreakingly realistic. For an audience more accustomed to MTV-style sharp cuts and frequent editing for ‘highlights’, it might seem tedious, but to me it displayed the reality of the fight, and the evolution of the characters, far better than any amount of dialogue could have done.
It also provided a suitable ending for a film which presents a microcosm of the human condition: you get a kicking now and again, but life goes on. Goethe would have been pleased. (Cultural note: Goethe penned the quote often attributed to Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” What’s with those Germanic types, eh?)