Fighter (파이터, Jéro Yun, 2020)

“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)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.

Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)