“My name is Ree Jina. I am a “North Korean Refugee”. This is how South Koreans call us. My fight is not over yet. I will keep fighting until the end. Even if I fail I will rise again.” a young woman insists, finding a new sense of purpose in the boxing ring while attempting to adjust to her new life in the South. As the title implies, Jéro Yun’s indie drama Fighter (파이터) follows one woman’s attempt to fight her way through personal trauma and societal anxiety but is less boxing movie than gentle character study as the heroine gains the courage to begin moving on through reconnecting with the estranged mother who abandoned her to come to the South alone. 

After a spell in a readjustment centre, Jina (Lim Sung-mi) is guided to a well-appointed flat by a social worker whose off the cuff remark that apartments like these are out of reach for most South Koreans speaks of a latent resentment. Most of Jina’s rent is subsidised, but she still needs to cover a part of it plus maintenance fees and so she contacts a North Korean fixer who helps her get a job in a restaurant. Needing more money to bring her father, who has escaped the North but remains trapped in hiding in China, to the South she decides to take a second job working as a cleaner at a boxing gym. She’s only there to clean, but despite herself Jina is captivated by the unexpected sight of female boxers. Encouraged to step into the ring herself, she remains reluctant, exclaiming that she doesn’t have time to waste on “fighting”, but eventually decides to give it a go on being told there may be money it if you’re good enough to turn pro. 

One of the reasons Jina gives sympathetic sub coach Tae-su (Baek Seo-bin) for her reluctance to box is due to the discrimination she faces from South Koreans who have a stereotypical vision of Northerners as a heavily militarised people as if they were all enemy combatants. She reminds him that ordinary people live there too, like presumably her father whom she’s desperate to save before he gets picked up by the Chinese authorities and sent back. The social worker’s barbed comments meanwhile echo the impression of some that North Koreans have an unfair advantage in the South with better access to a higher standing of living thanks to being taken care of by the government, but this obviously ignores the societal difficulties they face from isolation and discrimination to trouble gaining employment, potential exploitation, and the persistent culture shock of living in a modern capitalist economy. Even the kind and supportive Tae-su can’t help making a minor joke at her expense as she struggles to understand his contemporary Konglish slang. After making a few friendly overtures, the social worker later turns up drunk at Jina’s flat and attempts to proposition her as if he thinks he’s entitled to her attention, both misogynistic and xenophobic, while having the gaul to blackmail her into paying his medical fees when she attempts to defend herself and get away from him. 

Life in the South is certainly not easy. But Jina is also battling a sense of abandonment and displacement born of her mother’s defection when she was only 12. Planning to ask for money to help her father, Jina finds herself conflicted on meeting her, feeling a further sense of betrayal on realising her mother married again to a moderately wealthy man and had another daughter living a comfortable life in Seoul while she and her father continued to suffer. Yet as the opening quotation implied, Jina’s salvation lies in finding forgiveness and rebuilding old relationships while allowing herself to build new ones. Anchored by a supportive mentor in her coach, Jina finds a new family at the boxing club who actively care for and support her. Tae-su claims boxing restored his sense of purpose in life and gave him the courage to go on living it, but it’s less the sport with its rigid discipline and clearly defined structure that gives her a sense of safety than the unconditional kindness of her new friends which stands in such stark contrast to the rejection she senses from so many others in the South. 

Playing with boxing movie tropes, Yun includes a series of training montages and introduces a fleeting rivalry with a mean girl at the gym, but gradually shifts away from genre norms towards the realms of the family drama as Jina begins to overcome her trauma though reconnecting with her mother. “In life there are times we need to cry”, Jina’s unexpectedly sympathetic coach tells her, giving her the space to be vulnerable even in this most defiantly defensive place as she attempts to process all that life is currently throwing at her, gaining a new determination to keep on fighting no matter who or what tries to knock her down. 

Fighter streams in the US Aug. 7 to 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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