Written by Patrick Hao
Three Rounds with the Boxing Films at the New York Asian Film Festival
Boxing as a metaphor for daily struggle, pain and resistance has been a cinematic tradition going all the way back to Wallace Beery’s The Champ in 1931. The genre can vary greatly from slapstick comedy to inspirational social dramas. This year’s NYAFF has three boxing films from three different countries that use the genre in wildly different ways, each one uniquely demonstrating the genre’s versatility.
Fighter (Korea) – Playing August 7
The best boxing film from NYAFF is more character study than boxing film. In Fighter, director Jero Yeun uses the boxing genre to depict the struggles of a North Korean refugee, acclimating to life in South Korea. The metaphor may be obvious, but Director Jero Yeun is able to handle it gracefully. Jero has demonstrated an interest in the plight of North Korean refugees with his previous film Mrs. B. Once again, he centers his story on a woman, Ji-na, an introspective character contending with loneliness and prejudices as she attempts to acclimate into South Korean society.
Ji-na is played by Lim Sung-mi, who anchors the film with her performance. The character is mostly silent throughout, but great weight is given to her withdrawn passivity. This is a character who is constantly bombarded with microaggressions and flat-out aggression. She finds solace in a boxing gym, where she works as a janitor, where a young boxing trainer (Baek So-bin) takes interest in her and gives her free lessons on the side.
There is barely any boxing in this film. Rather, the film focuses on Ji-na’s journey of self-discovery. As she gets better in the ring, she also gets better at living her daily life. A scene of her having fun at a street fair is shot the way a boxing training montage would be. This delicate balance, in which all focus on one big final match is sidestepped, is a refreshing take on the genre. That is why it feels like whiplash when Fighter becomes a 50’s melodrama. A key piece of information is revealed as a big surprise in spite of the fact that any rational viewer would be able to infer the information from the context of the film. It almost undercuts the film’s world-weariness.
But, in the end Fighter was able to overcome any of those deficiencies with a strong central performance that feels authentic and lived in. It did not even need a final fight to succeed.
Blue (Japan) – Playing August 9
Blue, from director Keisuke Yoshida, is probably the most traditional sports genre film of the grouping. Based on Yoshida’s experience in the boxing world, the film is a four-hander that examines the age-old sports dynamic: all the passion in the world but no talent and all the talent in the world but no passion. Nobuto Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a boxer with a long losing streak, fighting solely because he loves the sport. He is friends with Kazuki Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide) a genuine championship contender whose cognitive abilities begin to fail him due to the sport but feels obligated to continue simply because he believes his talent is not to be wasted. Between them is Chika Amano, an ex-girlfriend of Urita and current girlfriend of Ogawa. She pleads with Urita to attempt to convince Ogawa to quit. All in the while, Urita and Ogawa begin to train Tsuyoshiu Narazaki (Tokio Emoto), a bumbling weakling, to give him purpose in life.
Yoshida’s film is an incredibly empathetic portrayal of characters in a state of flux. The film is a Japanese boxing version of Bull Durham. But, despite the many strands a hand, Blue is breezy to a fault. This is a straight down the middle boxing movie with all the usual hallmarks. Yoshida is unable to find a new or interesting perspective on these people than what we’ve seen before.
The boxing scenes themselves are shot competently and well (probably the best of the three), but it doesn’t pack any of the punch that more weighty entries have. Yet, the earnestness of the film, the characters, and the story is something to be admired. In a way Blue is much like Urita – while it has all the passion behind it, it is simply not very good.
One Second Champion (Hong Kong) – Playing August 9
Also, at NYAFF is the Hong Kong box office hit, One Second Champion. The film centers on a schlubby single father, Chow Tin Yin (Endy Chow), who was born with the ability to see one second into the future. He had never found use for it before until he got a job as a helper in a boxing gym to save money for an operation to repair his son’s hearing loss. He discovers that the power could be translated into success in the boxing ring.
Mileage may vary on this one as director Chiu Sin-Hang relies heavily on over-sentimentality to a familiar story of a father’s redemption. The one-second conceit just lays metaphor on top of metaphor that the boxing genre already provides. The film gets by through the sheer force of will of Endy Chow’s vivacious performance. He brings just the right balance of goofiness to the maudlin tone of the film. One transition involving his character is a highlight.
The whole film is shot with a digital sheen: overexposed and ugly. This leads to the boxing scenes feeling like Sprite commercials rather than a tough physical battle. In one scene, there is a one-take that seems evocative of Coogler’s famous oner in Creed, but the results in this film come off rather weightless and choreographed.
This would have been fine if the film was buoyed by a story that could be taken seriously. But it was hard to decide whether it knowingly committed self-parody by having a child actor so sickly cute with a disability that the film treats so ambiguously. The seams of manipulation are clear from the moment that kid appears on screen.
A combination of silliness and sentimentality is usually a hallmark of a great Hong Kong film. But, for whatever reason the film never finds the right balance of the two. One Second Champion is more Happy Madison than Shaolin Soccer.
You can purchase a ticket to see these titles at the New York Asian Film Festival here. Or you can buy a virtual pass to the New York Asian Film Festival here.