March 25, 2012

Crying Fist: Eyes Swollen With Blood and Tears

In your typical boxing movie, the glory of the big fight depends on the depth of your feelings for one of the contenders: You need to like one guy more than the other. It's the story of an underdog, or of a man seeking justice or demanding payback or earning respect. But Ryu Seung-wan's Crying Fist undermines all that. By building to a championship between rivals with equally tearjerking back stories, this unconventional sports flick leaves you uneasy about rooting for either opponent. Suddenly, both sides deserve your sympathy. Weird!

In one corner is Gang Tae-shik (Choi Min-sik), a former silver medalist who now, over 40, scrapes out a living by letting frustrated passersby beat him up in the street for a fee. Part performance artist, part washed-up local hero, he's a bit of a joke who, more seriously, is going blind from head traumas, even as his wife (Seo Hye-rin) is divorcing him, and his brother (Lim Won-hie) is fleecing him of every won.

In the other corner is Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryu Seung-beom), an emotionally retarded criminal with a devoted, doomed father and a dying, maybe demented, grandma. As sad stories go, he's Tae-shik's equal, especially when you consider that Tae-shik at least has an ongoing bromance with a cafe owner (Jeon Ho-jin) while all Sang-hwan's got is the mentorship of a prison boxing coach (Byeong Hie-bong), who admits all his boys-in-training are like sons to him. Sang-won is just his latest protege.

This all adds up to the climactic fight being discomforting instead of rousing since getting in either guy's corner means abandoning his foe. You almost wish, Ryoo hadn't let the parallel stories converge, that he'd ended with two fights in two weight classes, making each loss and/or victory more personal. Pitting them against each other seems illogical. And yet, it's also what makes this movie so uniquely strange and good.

While hardly a philosophical film, Crying Fist does raise questions beyond who should win... Like why is redemption by violence attractive? How can a natural inclination towards violence be transformed into something constructive? When does a focused application of violence become perverted? When, how and why does violence pay off? Does it ever? Which isn't to say Crying Fist is a cinematic essay on pugilism. It's an effective melodrama. You bring the crying, this movie will bring the fists.

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