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(Movie Review by Eric Choi) Ryoo Seung-wan has always been a talent to watch. A director with a unique ability for blending the artistic with the commercial, Ryoo is no doubt one of the best filmmakers working in South Korea today. I’ve always thought of him as a Korean Robert Rodriguez; both began their careers by producing a gritty masterpiece from almost no budget at all (“El Mariachi” from Rodriguez, “Die Bad” from Ryoo). His most commercial film, “Arahan,” turned out to be the most entertaining movie of 2004, despite receiving largely negative responses from Korean critics.
This brings us to “Crying Fist,” Ryoo’s most recent outing. The story revolves around two main characters, both of who are heavily flawed and, at times, pathetic individuals. Tae-Shik (Choi Min-Shik from “Oldboy”) is a one time silver medallist boxer in the Asian games, now reduced to poverty, brain damage, and alienation from his wife and son. In desperation, he works the streets as a human punching bag, getting beaten up for cash. Sang-Hwan (Ryoo Seung-bum, the director’s brother, and the lead in “Arahan”) is a frustrated thug who finds himself imprisoned after accidentally killing a man. After stirring up trouble and demonstrating his fighting abilities, he is given the chance to join the prison boxing club. What follows is the journey of two different men who find their lives deteriorating before their eyes, and who must fight to regain what they have lost.
“Crying Fist” is, without a doubt, Ryoo Seung-wan’s best film yet. Instead of making a clich’d underdog story so prevalent in boxing movies, Ryoo instead pits the two protagonists, both having won the audience’s sympathy and both deserving of a victory, against each other in the ring. What makes this approach fascinating is that the audience doesn’t know who to root for, and who to rebel against. For most of the film, the audience watches the two characters fight through the hardships of life, and the climatic match is made all the more emotionally moving because of our investment in both men’s fates. We want them both to succeed, and yet knowing that they can’t both win.
Of course, in order to become emotionally attached to the characters requires superb acting on the part of the actors, and thankfully both Choi and Ryoo deliver. The real surprise here is Ryoo Seung-bum, whose character in “Crying Fist” is a 180-degree turn from his character in “Arahan”, so much so that the actor is virtually unrecognizable. Choi, meanwhile, once again proves that he is one of the best actors working in Korea today, becoming his character so completely that you’d be hard to tell he was the same actor from “Oldboy.” The supporting cast does good work, in particularly Na Mun-hee as Tae-shik’s emotionally stressed wife.
“Crying Fist” is also technically brilliant, with the cinematography intentionally overexposed to add punch to the mesmerizing visuals. The music is excellent, hitting just the right note in every scene, and the use of the song “Pokarekare Ana” is a particularly inspired choice. The editing is flawless, and fully deserving of the Grand Bell Award in Korea. Scenes flow so seamlessly into one another that the montage sequences are some of the best I’ve seen yet. The lives of the two protagonists are intertwined in such a manner that it feels as if they are playing off one another even though, in reality, they never meet until the climax.
As for the boxing scenes, they are filmed in such a way that is truly remarkable. Instead of the usual method of tightly editing the matches to make the actors look like professional boxers, “Crying Fist” utilizes unusually long takes. The second round of the final match is the most memorable, as the entire round is shown without a single edit being made. Such interesting moments make it close to impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen. They also add a layer of realism to the film that makes the audience connect even more with the characters and their struggles.
Interesting side notes in “Crying Fist” are the references to other films. Of note are the influences by Park Chan-wook — the long takes during the boxing matches mirror the famous corridor action sequence in “Oldboy,” and just the fact that Choi Min-shik is boxing alludes to virtually every fight sequence in the aforementioned film. Many cast members from “Arahan” also show up in “Crying Fist” in small roles. The actor who played a mob boss in “Arahan” is, ironically, a prison warden in “Crying Fist”. There are other, amusing cameos sprinkled throughout the film, including some from famous faces that provides an additional layer of entertainment.
Without a doubt, “Crying Fist” is one of the most emotionally moving movies to come out of Korea in 2005. One possible nitpick is that it may be just a big too long; but even so, the emotional payoff more than makes up for the extra length. As I returned to the movie again and again, I found my allegiance continuously shifting between Sang-Hwan and Tae-shik. Even after knowing the movie’s outcome, the emotional punch never goes away, simply because what is important is not who wins, but rather the struggles the characters go through to redeem themselves.
Seung-wan Ryoo (director) / Seung-wan Ryoo (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sik Choi …. Kang Tae-sik
Ho-jin Jeon …. Sang-chul
Won-hie Lim …. Won-tae
Seung-beom Ryu ….Yu Sang-hwan