주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist)

A Bravo Entertainment, Sio Film Production
Distribution: Showeast
Rating: 15 and Over
Genre: Action Drama
Running Time: 134 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2005/Apr/01

WITH 최민식 (Choi Min-Shik) as Kang Tae-Shik; 류승범 (Ryu Seung-Beom) as Yoo Sang-Hwan; 임원희 (Im Won-Hee) as Won-Tae; 변희봉 (Byun Hee-Bong) as Park; 나문희 (Na Moon-Hee) as Sang-Hwan's Grandmother; 기주봄 (Gi Ju-Bong) as Sang-Hwan's Father; 천호진 (Cheon Ho-Jin) as Sang-Cheol; 안길강 (Ahn Gil-Gang) as Prison Warden; 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo) as Yong-Dae;

CREW Director 류승완 (Ryu Seung-Wan) Executive Producer 박재형 (Park Jae-Hyung) 임승용 (Im Seung-Yong) | Screenplay 전철홍 (Jeon Cheol-Hong) 류승완 (Ryu Seung-Wan) | Director of Photography 조용규 (Jo Yong-Gyu) Lighting 정성철 (Jung Seong-Cheol) Editor 남나영 (Nam Na-Young) Music 방준석 (Bang Joon-Seok) Art Direction 박일현 (Park Il-Hyeon) Action Choreography 정두홍 (Jung Doo-Hong) Assistant Director 송종훈 (Song Jong-Hoon) 한동욱 (Han Dong-Wook) 유선우 (Yoo Seon-Woo) 이정훈 (Lee Jung-Hoon) 

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 9,322,812,000 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 1,462,972
BUDGET: 3,900,000,000 Won

REVIEW

The poorest neighborhood in town, buried in eternal darkness, where nothing good seems to happen. A young man down on his luck, no future for him on the horizon. The only way to continue fighting, find something that will make his miserable life worth living is boxing. Two men, one ring. When you ring the bell, it's as fair as sports can get. You slack and you'll see the mat. You do well, you become the champion. And then it's the good life, nice cars, a new house. It was all worth it, after all. And you can scream, scream because you won, you slammed your foe to the mat with a mean uppercut. "Adrian~!"

But... Hey! That's another film, right?

When you think about it, boxing is like life. You work hard for a long time, preparing for the biggest match of your career. There are people helping you get there, teaching you what to do based on their experience. But, ultimately, when you put on the gloves and enter that ring, you're by yourself. All you've learned is put to the test, how your body and mind react to the obstacles put in front of you depends on how prepared you are. How many hits you can take before falling down and giving up. Boxing, like life, is not about winning, but surviving, until the end; it doesn't matter how you get there, what you do to reach that goal... all it matters is being there. Being able to say I've done it, I'm a survivor. And it's only then that you can really understand the meaning of winning. Ryu Seung-Wan's 주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist) is a film about the huge boxing ring that is life, where surviving is the only thing that matters. Where people who experience the bottom of the barrel are able to survive through fundamental emotions: rage and hope.

I remember the first time I saw Ryu, playing an extra in Park Chan-Wook's 3인조 (Trio). Was it 1996? Maybe 97. Skinny like a stick, eating ramen next to the big stars Lee Kyung-Young and Kim Min-Jong. He was just one of Park's assistant directors back then. Film running through his veins, creating that at times intoxicating feeling, that will to make something out of his passion. Even knowing it was next to impossible, trying hard to do something about it. His short films were the result of those 25 years of struggling, of dreaming, of hoping. He didn't graduate from a prestigious foreign university or major in film studies. All he had to show was the memories of a childhood spent watching films: Sam Peckinpah, Buster Keaton, those incredible Shaw Brothers weekend showings, full of mystery and enjoyment. Lee Doo-Yong and Lee Hyuk-Soo's films, and all those other 70s Korean action flicks with Lee Dae-Geun, Jang Dong-Hwi, Kim Young-In and Park No-Shik, so drenched in hilarious machismo and kitsch atmosphere, yet so entertaining. Jackie Chan and his incredible feats, John Woo's tragic heroes... it was all on his mind, floating. All his personal experiences, the dreams he made while watching those films, the action scenes he set up in the backyard playing with his brother, it was all there. Two rushes of adrenaline that shocked a little district in Seoul called Chungmuro. Two short films that changed a person's life forever, winning him awards at important Film Festivals, and even a contract to tie them together (adding two new shorts) for a feature length film, which brought more people to the theater than big money blockbusters with huge stars. All he had to his name was some leftover film stock, a few friends from the industry willing to help, and 25 years of imagination. Enter 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Die Bad).

Die Bad wasn't just a phenomenal debut film, it was a shock to the system. Korean Cinema was emerging from a decade long crisis thanks to incredibly talented filmmakers, but they were mostly confined to the arthouse sphere. The industry was lacking young blood willing to shake the conventions of genre and commercial cinema. Comedy, horror, extremely well choreographed action, a slice of life meets coming of age drama that isn't phony. Part Marty Scorsese meets Peckinpah, part Choi Min-Soo action noir without the over the top macho bullshit. It all worked, all fit perfectly. It was funny, the action was great, the final part incredibly powerful. Even Ryu's little brother Seung-Beom looked like a star in the making. Ryu Seung-Wan became the new enfant prodige of Korean Cinema. But the 25 years of training Ryu underwent and his first win didn't make Ryu more confident, ready for a new fight with a bigger opponent. It just made things worse, more complicated, harder to accept. The world of curiosity, wonder and creativity he built in his mind crashed under the weight of the movie business' system. His great debut meant acclaim from critics, more acclaim meant the attention of big time producers interested in working with him, and more money to spend on his next project; more money meant more obstacles. No more free flowing of ideas, less chances to take risks, a bigger burden. Ryu's first real feature film, 피도 눈물도 없이 (No Blood No Tears) strolled out two years later to little fanfare. It starred one of the three biggest actresses in the country, Jeon Do-Yeon, but it was too dark for the average multiplex fan. It oozed genre Cinema and was a delight to watch, - employing some past greats like Kim Young-In, Baek Il-Seob and Bae Chan-Gi, using what Ryu learned during those two years to perfection - yet people felt lukewarm toward it. A flop at the box office, panned by critics, and more questions. Where was the guy who made Die Bad?

아라한-장풍대작전 (Arahan) was Ryu having fun, employing the big budget to do what he couldn't before. Silly and entertaining, but also taking its influences seriously, not to merely distance himself from the others, not trying to be 'cool.' An obvious commercial film with the main intent of entertaining the masses, and showing how far Korean action had come in the last 5 years. Yet, critics misunderstood him again: on the Korean side, almost treating him like a sell out, again asking for the grittiness of Die Bad; on the Western front, trying to label him anyway they could, to mask the fact they didn't understand his work. Ryu must have suffered a lot during this period. A few interviews with Film2.0 and Cine21, where he basically asks himself what kind of sin he committed to be treated like that, the proof of his dilemma. A victim of the sinner/saint dichotomy that so often plagues film criticism. Was he like everyone else, trying to win over the crowds above everything else... or still the enfant prodige with his creativity and incredible ability to make his influences help him create something unique? And to think he just wanted to make the films he liked...

When it was announced Ryu's next project would be about boxing, the rows of people in the industry expecting some sort of sports drama enriched with his style grew. But this is not a sports drama, it's barely about sports at all. Boxing is just a very fitting metaphor for life, a tool to make a statement. The film, above all else, is a story about surviving, never giving up, because even when hope is all that's left, there's a way out. Yes, it's a predictable and tired cliche, but the important thing is making those cliches look convincing; it's giving a sense of sincerity and honesty to everything you do. Then even the most tired plot device of all can work: the underdog fighting all odds to win. But what happens when the underdogs are two, and even though they're fighting each other at end, the only person they have to conquer is themselves?

Sang-Hwan (Ryu Seung-Beom) is your average juvenile punk, his hairstyle more of a barrier to keep people at a distance than a fashion statement, lest they might find what really lies inside him. He's constantly fighting against the law, his bad luck, parents who clearly care about him but cannot do anything to save him. He survives through primal instincts: rage, fear, violence. If he wants something, he steals it; if someone disrespects him, he beats him up; if things go wrong, he lets fear dictate what his first reaction will be. Life in the cell scares him less than trying to live the right way, because he can't really fathom how someone like him could do that. He knows that somewhere, out there where he can't reach it, lies happiness, but there's something holding him back. Blinding him, suffocating him, letting his body and anger take his decisions for him.

Kang Tae-Shik (Choi Min-Shik) is no different: a past Asian Games silver medalist, now the only thing left of his past glory is a medal, a failed marriage, and enough debts to make a family crumble. He doesn't have the force to fight it anymore, his only way of keeping those 20 years of repressed rage in check being his newfound occupation: playing a human sandbag on the streets. The only reason he doesn't jump in the Han River being his pride, that fear people might think of him a loser because he left his family in the dark taking the easy way out. He lives like a spirit, wandering from district to district playing the fool of the village, entertaining people and letting them vent their frustrations on him for a mere 10,000 Won. Even past friends and foes come back to him, all trying to look for the same thing: money. His health is deteriorating fast, he's barely able to read now, because of all the blows he had to take. But he keeps going on, there must be something for him to do. Something that will make life worth living again.

That something those people find is a Boxing competition, nothing special for most people, but a way out for them. A little money, some recognition from the public, but best of all, a shred of normality. A new beginning, maybe even a new life. Is that enough to make them swallow their pride, and try hard for once? Give it all they've got, no matter what happens at the end, because that'll mean they finally accomplished something. Tae-Shik says just getting to that 6th round would be a victory, it would show his wife he's not a good for nothing bum after all, it would make his kid a little less embarrassed of his father, even though they barely have a relationship. It would make Tae-Shik find something worth fighting for. For Sang-Hwan, that stage could be a way to channel all his fury into something constructive, find a decent way to live.

The way Ryu separates the two stories, giving emphasis to different stages of suffering (youth angst and middle age crisis) only ends up making them stronger. He never makes the final encounter some ridiculous 'Rumble in the Jungle' like moment, because it clearly doesn't need to be. Also, one thing he wasn't able to do as well in his past works, every single piece of action in this film is connected at heart with the story. There's no 'Ok, let's kick ass' moment in the film, everything has its own meaning. And, in line with Jung Doo-Hong's continued development, everything he learned so far converges into a new point, a new style: that of having no style, of making action that, like very good CG effects, perfectly blends with the story. That's the best gift that Ryu received working with Jung. His realism and matter of fact action style has reached a level of complexity and synergy with the normal foundations of filmmaking that few people can dream of having.

Choi Min-Shik, Ryu Seung-Beom. An interesting pair, to say the least. Choi has become famous for his incredible eruptions of charisma, yet he's so repressed, introverted, almost banal here. His attachment to a silly medal the only thing he has to his name, Tae-Shik might be seen as a loser, an asshole with no social values. But the major strength of Ryu's film is that it never beautifies its characters' problems. There's no fairy tales telling us that even though they're poor, life is beautiful. It's because the film is so sincere in dealing with those bottom of the barrel situations that the sentiments the final part of the film evokes ring true in an incredibly powerful way. It's because Tae-Shik is such a good for nothing asshole, whose 'goodness of heart' is never shown that we feel happy for him at the end of the film. Just like with Sang-Hwan, all that explosive rage finally finding a meaning, finally able to be respected by his family, finally able to believe something could change. While Choi had nothing to prove, Ryu Seung-Beom had only shown he had great potential so far. He was constantly put in those situations where a youngster with talent could emerge, stealing the show. But, this time the show is all his. Just like his character in Arahan, all that Ki he releases is amazing to see. I've never seen a young Korean actor (with the possible exception of Yang Dong-Geun in the TV Drama Ruler of Your Own World) exhibit that kind of rage, that passion, that power and be so convincing. This is clearly the role that will change his career, from 'that talented young star' to one of the country's leading acting figures.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The supporting characters are just as good as the leads. Oh Dal-Soo, abandoning his eccentric cool to play a real loser; Cheon Ho-Jin, a name that will sound unfamiliar to many people, but one of the finest character actors in Korea (he's been in some classic TV Dramas too, like the amazing 산 - The Mountain), conveying that air of human suffering with great subtlety; the great Byun Hee-Bong --responsible for many of the most striking cameo and supporting roles in recent Korean Cinema-- showing his versatility with a quiet and subdued character; Im Won-Hee, the funniest face in Korean Cinema, still trying to prove he's actually a pretty damn good actor, playing the conman who shows some humanity toward one of his friends; Ahn Gil-Gang, the prison ward who understands Sang-Hwan's position better than anybody, and wants to help; Kim Soo-Hyun, who appeared in all of Ryu's films, viciously annoying and irritating; Gi Ju-Bong, who starred in a Million films and TV Dramas, yet can disappear under the guise of his roles every single time, leaving a mark on the viewers. And, obviously, Na Moon-Hee. The (grand)mother figure that every director would want to have. That last scene after the match is so simple, so incredibly striking, it reminded me of my own grandmother. Yeah... it might not be the most intelligent thing to bring up when talking about a film, but sometimes great acting and sincerity from the filmmakers can go a long, long way. I'll challenge anyone who's had more or less troubled relationships with their family, or even those who didn't, to stay still, to not be affected by her performance. Such a small character, but given the right pathos and attention, and enough freedom to add her personal touch to that person. A really memorable performance, no surprise from such an actress.

Crying Fist is Ryu's graduation project, a stepping stone to perhaps greater things to come in the future. All these years spent getting a general idea of how film criticism works in Korea, how filmgoers are influenced by it. The needs of both parties, his needs, the expectations of his peers. And, last but not least, his International status, still in a dangerous limbo between arthouse acceptance and 'fanboy' land. The maturity Ryu shows in this project, the newfound stability that makes the film flow perfectly, the fact he's been able to strip himself of his influences and create something that even defies the world 'genre' shows all those hard times were worth something. They were like hard training for an important match, perhaps the most important of his career: finding his voice. Now it's no more wonderkid, enfant prodige, the Korean Tarantino or Scorsese... it's just Ryu Seung-Wan. And I think we can all be happy for that.

Originally Published on Twitch - 2005/Aug/22

ACTING GRADES

85 최민식 (Choi Min-Shik)
77 나문희 (Na Moon-Hee)
76 류승범 (Ryu Seung-Beom)
75 변희봉 (Byun Hee-Bong)
72 천호진 (Cheon Ho-Jin)
71 안길강 (Ahn Gil-Gang)
70 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo)
69 기주봉 (Gi Ju-Bong)
68 임원희 (Im Won-Hee)

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