My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Jung Hyuk-ki, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The most Korean is the most universal” according to the hero of My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Pansori Boxer) and his childhood best friend as they pursue parallel dreams of Pansori and pugilism which are destined, we come to understand, only for heartbreak and tragedy. Yet, in true Korean sports movie fashion, there’s more than one way to win and the best revenge against cruel fate might indeed be living well because “we only live once we should do what we want or you’ll regret it before you die.”

Byung-gu (Um Tae-goo) was once an aspiring boxer determined to make it to the top, developing his own idiosyncratic style of fighting dubbed “Pansori Boxing” fought in rhythm with the drum beats of traditional folk music as played by his friend Ji-yeon (Lee Seol) who is equally determined to become the world’s best performer of Pansori. These days, however, he works part-time at his old gym doing odd jobs and handing out flyers to try and win more customers. Waking up one day he claims from a “very long and strange dream”, Byung-gu has a sudden urge to take up boxing again, reminding his old coach that George Forman was 45 when he became World Champion so 29 is not to old to give it another go. Director Park (Kim Hee-Won) is unconvinced, partly it seems because Byung-gu has partially forgotten the reasons he was forced to give up his boxing career in the first place which make It unlikely he’ll be able to regain his licence. Meanwhile, in an attempt to increase his chances, he begins coaching a young woman, Min-ji (Hyeri), coaxed into the gym by one of his unconventional ads which promise dramatic weight loss as a result of intensive boxing training. 

Boxing is however outdated. As the two young tykes who hang out in the gym point out, they don’t even show boxing on the TV anymore it’s all about MMA. The gym is dying, hardly anyone wants to train and the only other boxer on the books, Gyo-hwa (Choi Joon-young), is continually put out because they’ve yet to arrange any fights for him. “Times have changed” Park is told, eventually agreeing as he contemplates making a sacrifice to make Byung-gu’s dreams come true. But as Byung-gu tells him, “our prime time may be over, but that doesn’t mean that we are”, determined to regain himself in the ring if aware that his gesture is in one sense “meaningless” and soon to be forgotten. 

As we soon discover, Byung-gu’s words have an additional meaning beyond simple transience in that he is suffering from “punch-drunk syndrome”, a degenerative condition similar to Alzheimer’s brought on by brain damage sustained by all those blows in the ring. His world is literally disappearing, the photographer’s closing down because no one uses film anymore and, unbeknownst to him, the gym targeted for demolition, yet it’s Byung-gu’s sense of reality that is ultimately crumbling as he looks back on past mistakes and regrets the failure of relationships that were important to him because of his stubborn pride. As Min-ji tells him, however, no matter what it was he did that has a him continually remind her that he’s a “bad person”, his other problem is that he’s too nice, a mild-mannered boxer who won’t fight for himself outside of the ring but is always in everyone else’s corner. 

The central irony is that he fights partly for the honour of boxing, an outdated craft, incongruously married to the similarly ‘outdated” art of Pansori which sees him move not only in an unexpected rhythm but incorporating the sweeping moves of traditional dance. As luck would have it, Min-ji is also a Pansori drummer, providing him with a new beat to spur him on to achieve his dreams while Park eventually comes on side in realising that nothing matters so much anymore as making sure Byung-gu gets the opportunity to fulfil himself while he’s still in some way present. Featuring lengthy sequences of Pansori performance singing Byung-gu’s story in traditional recitative as well as off-beat editing to the rhythms of traditional folk music, My Punch-drunk Boxer is a heartfelt ode to giving it everything you’ve got right to the mat but also to forgiveness and redemption as Byung-gu learns to make peace with the past while supporting and being supported by those all around him quietly fighting similar battles of their own. 


My Punch-Drunk Boxer streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Jung Ji-woo, 2019)

Tune in for love poster 2The course of true love never did run smooth. Another in the recent series of nostalgic ‘90s romances, Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Yooyeolui Eumakaelbum) takes a pair of nervous youngsters and charts the course of their love story over a decade which, though not quite turbulent, saw its share of difficulties and a host of technological changes. “Miracles are nothing special” the heroine tells us, but when it comes to love miracles are all there is and in the end you’ll just have to learn to trust them.

On Oct. 1, 1994 Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) walks into Mi-su’s (Kim Go-eun) bakery looking for something with tofu in it. While inside, he hears the first broadcast of Yoo Yeol’s Music Album, a new morning program which seems to signal the beginning of a new era. Though Mi-su is quick to realise that the only reason someone would be desperately looking for plain tofu early in the morning is because they’ve just been released from prison, she decides to offer him a part-time job in the bakery where he becomes a member of the family alongside her “aunt” Eun-ja (Kim Guk-Hee) who’s taken care of her since her mother died. His past, however, refuses to let him go however much he tries to move away from it. Tracked down by his delinquent friends, Hyeon-u is unable to return to the bakery and will spend the next decade trying to do just that.

Fate parts the youngsters repeatedly, but always brings them back together again seemingly by chance. Military service, changes of address, miscommunication and changing technology all conspire to keep them apart but like any good rom-com the problems aren’t so much circumstantial as personal. A deeply wounded young man, Hyeon-u is taken with the familial atmosphere at the bakery because he feels a sense of acceptance he hasn’t anywhere else, but deep down he still doubts he deserves the “normal life” he so deeply craves. His friends doubt it too, always turning up unexpectedly to remind him of their shared trauma and the debt of guilt he can’t repay. His insecurity prevents him from sharing the source of his pain with Mi-su, keeping her somehow outside the bubble of his shame as the only one capable of knowing the “real” him. She meanwhile is frustrated in realising that he’s holding something back, hurt he doesn’t trust her enough to let him in, and worrying he’ll never truly be ready for full commitment. 

Nevertheless, though often apart they remain painfully in sync, until that is fate brings them back together. As young man with a checkered past and no safety net, Hyeon-u has to fight twice as hard to get ahead, eventually graduating high school and getting into college while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Mi-su, meanwhile, is burdened by the knowledge that she’s lost her mother’s bakery and is desperate to get it back. Dreaming of being a writer, she turns down an internship at the all important radio show to go for a steady job she’s told is at a publisher’s but is actually somewhere more like a print shop where she’s stuck doing incredibly boring admin work. Hyeon-u is unable to get back in touch with her after miraculously reappearing because he’s ashamed to admit that he ended up getting in trouble again thanks to his awful friends even though it really wasn’t his fault. She meanwhile confesses that a part of her was relieved not to hear from him because she too is unhappy in herself, feeling lost and confused, disappointed not to be living the kind of life she could be proud of. 

Times change, but their one constant is the radio show broadcasting every morning and providing additional though indirect methods of communication when they are otherwise unable to make contact. Pay phones give way to email and then to mobiles all the way into the early days of the smartphone era, but face to face conversation remains the most difficult. Mi-su gives up on Hyeon-u while he, ironically, probably does sort something out by having a good old fashioned punch up with his generally unhelpful friend. She wonders if she’s better off to make the “smart” choice rather than waiting on love. Hyeon-u is hurt that in the end she didn’t trust him, but is eventually made realise that the problem was that he didn’t trust himself. Then again, you can’t fight the power of true connection or the pain of its absence, all you need to do is a little fine tuning to make sure the signal comes through loud and clear.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

A Single Rider (싱글라이더, Lee Zoo-young, 2017)

Single Rider posterAs the old adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Having sacrificed it all for “conventional success”, an emotionally repressed salaryman loses everything when his company is exposed for its immoral business practices only to discover that he’s left it all too late and those he meant to keep close have begun to draw away from him. Quietly contemplative, Lee Zoo-young’s debut A Single Rider (싱글라이더) is a gentle meditation on the way life can get away from you. Brainwashed into the salaryman dream, our financier “hero” allows himself to be swept along by the confidence of his superiors, taking friends and family with him, when he knows deep down that if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Sometimes, it really is just too late, and then sometimes, tragically, it isn’t but you miss your chance anyway.

Kang Jae-hoon (Lee Byung-hun) is a broker at a securities company. Buttoned-down and near silent, he cuts a geeky if reassuringly dull figure but there’s a storm brewing under his calm exterior. His top rated company is in a lot of trouble. They’ve all been breaking the rules, and now they’re about to go under taking the savings of hundreds of ordinary, innocent people with them – people that Kang personally assured that their money would be safe because the company would never declare bankruptcy. Not quite as morally bankrupt as he seems, Kang has been depressed for some time and is on some pretty heavy duty medication. Sending what looks eerily like a suicide note to his bosses, Kang appears to rethink. He sent his wife and son to Australia to “upgrade” them through adding English functionality but hasn’t exactly paid much attention to them since. Searching for the address of the house where they live on Google Maps, he spots them captured together outside and makes an abrupt decision. Before he knows it, he’s bought a plane ticket for Sydney, heading straight to the airport with no luggage and leaving his phone behind so his boss can’t bother him.

Far from a joyful reunion, however, what Kang finds is a visual guide to all the ways he has been erased from the lives of his family. Though Kang’s wife Soo-jin (Gong Hyo-jin) and son Jin-woo (Yang Yoo-jin) have been in Australia for a couple of years, Kang does not appear to have visited before and has trouble finding the house. When he eventually locates it, he knocks at the door and gets no answer, only to find his wife laughing and joking with a neighbour – apparently the father of a friend of Jin-woo’s. Unable to bring himself to knock again, or even to find a call box and explain, Kang begins “haunting” his family, creeping around the house while they’re out, spotting pictures of the Australian neighbour, Chris (Jack Campbell), everywhere and none at all of him.

Watching them from afar, Kang is forced to reevaluate his choices. The smallest details trigger memories of his life in Korea – a flapping kitchen door left ajar when his wife had insisted on a deadlock in Seoul because she felt so afraid with him gone so often even though they lived in an upscale high-rise with an electronic entry pad, the violin she gave up for him but now apparently has taken back up, the papers on the kitchen table which imply she wants to stay rather than go “home”. Like many men who work away from their families, Kang forgot that time was passing for them too and assumed they would be waiting for him like toys put away in a box, sleeping until he’s ready to wake them. Now he wonders how close she really is to Chris, if she wants to stay for him, if she’s grown away from her husband, or simply enjoys the wide open breeziness of their spacious Sydney home with its comparatively relaxed rhythms and friendly laid-back way of life. The only thing he can be sure of is that he doesn’t seem to belong in this house anymore and this is very much not his world.

Then again perhaps Australia is not all good – Kang hates the way everyone seems to call his wife “Sue” to make her foreign name easier to remember. He runs into something similar with a young girl he noticed at the station whose name is “Ji-na” (Ahn So-hee) but everyone in Australia seems to call “Gina”. Ji-na’s problems turn out to be bigger than a misremembered name. Despite his obvious familiarity with financial scams, Kang does nothing when he overhears Ji-na on the phone to some dodgy people who want to do a “personal currency exchange”. He doesn’t see them convince her to get in their car, but does catch sight of her coming back the same way later limping and bloody having been deprived of the money she’d carefully been saving up while her labour was exploited as she lingered on after her visa had expired (which is why she can’t go to the police, as her abusers are well aware). Ji-na, like him, made a series of bad decisions though perhaps for “better” reasons and has paid dearly for her mistakes.

To be fair, Kang thought he was making his decisions for good reasons – he convinced himself he was working to provide for his family, even sending them away “for their benefit”, but now he regrets it. He regrets everything – his workaholic lifestyle, the way he allowed his principles to be compromised in pursuit of “success”, the way he bought his swanky Seoul apartment and a middle-class suburban home in Australia through defrauding people who trusted him, and the way he lost his family through a misplaced desire to “better” them rather than simply allowing them to be happy. He thinks it’s too late, that he’s ruined himself and that his family have already moved on. He may be wrong, but he won’t find out by snooping around the house and following Chris about all day to figure out how close he is to his wife.

Kang’s tragedy is that he made a series of bad decisions in which the last was the worst and the most sad. Lee Byung-hun invests Kang with an air of utter defeat, as if the air itself were crushing him while he remains unable to reconcile himself to his new circumstances or bring himself to make contact with his family. A final revelation (or perhaps confirmation of an obvious fact) makes plain why exactly it is that he seems to wander invisibly through the city streets, using public transport but miraculously disappearing from one place to appear in another as if in a trance. Kang’s only option is, perhaps, to learn to be glad that his wife and son finally have a chance to be happy even if it’s without him and be grateful that his son has found another man who’d run until his feet were sore just to keep him safe. Sometimes it really is just too late, but, tragically, sometimes you accept defeat too early when what you thought you’d lost is already on its way back to you only you’ve already given up, not on it, but on yourself.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Byun Sung-hyun, 2017)

merciless posterHeroic bloodshed is alive and well and living in Korea. The strange love child of Na Hyun’s The Prison, and Park Hoon-jung’s New World, the first gangster action drama from Byun Sung-hyun (previously known for light comedies), The Merciless (불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상, Boolhandang: Nabbeun Nomdeului Sesang) more than lives up to its name in its noirish depiction of genuine connection undercut by the inevitability of betrayal. Inspired as much by ‘80s Hong Kong cinema with its ambitious, posturing tough guys and dodgy cops as by the more immediate influence of the seminal Infernal Affairs, Byun’s brutal tale of chivalry is, as he freely admits, an exercise in style, but its aesthetics do, at least, help to elevate the otherwise generic narrative.

That would be – the complicated relationship between young rookie Hyun-su (Im Siwan) and grizzled veteran Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Hyun-su proves himself in prison by besting current champions bringing him to the attention of Jae-ho – the de facto prison king. Sharing similar aspirations, the pair form a tight, brotherly bond as they hatch a not so secret plan to take out Jae-ho’s boss, Ko (Lee Kyoung-young), leaving Jae-ho a clear path to the top spot of a gang engaged in a lucrative smuggling operation run in co-operation with the Russian mob and using the area’s fishing industry as an unlikely cover.

We’re first introduced to Jae-ho through reputation in the film’s darkly comic opening scene in which Ko’s resentful, cowardly nephew Byung-gab (Kim Hee-won), has a strange conversation with a soon to be eliminated colleague. Byung-gab says he finds it hard to eat fish with their tiny eyes staring back at you in judgement. He admires Jae-ho for his ice cold approach to killing, meeting his targets’ gaze and pulling the trigger without a second thought.

Jae-ho is, indeed, merciless, and willing to stop at nothing to ensure his own rise through the criminal underworld. He will, however, not find it so easy to pull that trigger when he’s staring into the eyes of sometime partner Hyun-su. Neither of the two men has been entirely honest with the other, each playing a different angle than it might at first seem but then caught by a genuine feeling of brotherhood and trapped in storm of existential confusion when it comes to their individual end goals. Offering some fatherly advice to Hyun-su, Jae-ho recites a traumatic childhood story and cautions him to trust not the man but the circumstances. Yet there is “trust” of a kind existing between the two men even if it’s only trust in the fact they will surely be betrayed.

Byun rejoices in the abundance of reversals and backstabbings, piling flashbacks on flashbacks to reveal deeper layers and hidden details offering a series of clues as to where Jae-ho and Hyun-su’s difficult path may take them. Truth be told, some of these minor twists are overly signposted and disappointingly obvious given the way they are eventually revealed, but perhaps when the central narrative is so fiendishly convoluted a degree of predictability is necessary.

The Merciless has no real political intentions, but does offer a minor comment on political necessity in its bizarre obsession with the fishing industry. The police know the Russians are involved in drug smuggling and using the local fishing harbour as a front, but as fishing rights are important and the economy of primary importance they’d rather not risk causing a diplomatic incident by rocking the boat, so to speak. The sole female presence in the film (aside from Hyun-su’s sickly mother), determined yet compromised police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin), is the only one not willing to bow to political concerns but her methods are anything other than clean as she plants seemingly vast numbers of undercover cops in Jae-ho’s outfit, only to find herself at the “mercy” of vacillating loyalties.

Heavily stylised, Byun’s action debut does not quite achieve the level of pathos it strives for in an underwhelming emotional finale but still manages to draw out the painful connection between the two anti-heroes as they each experience a final epiphany. An atmosphere of mistrust pervades, as it does in all good film noir, but the central tragedy is not in trust misplaced but trust manifesting as a kind of love between two men engulfed by a web of confusion, betrayal, and corrupted identities.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on 3rd November, 6.30pm. The Merciless will also screen at:

and will be released by StudioCanal on 13th November.

International trailer (English subtitles)