's latest shows his growth as a filmmaker
Kim Kyu Hyun (internews)
Six years ago, Ryoo Seung-wan
rode into the Korean indie film scene with his jaw-dropping debut "Die Bad"
. Scavenging the leftover film stock and employing his friends and family members as cast and staff, Ryoo and his young crew made four short films in strikingly diverse styles and contents. He then re-edited them as one feature, which was eventually distributed to commercial theaters. "Die Bad"
is a viciously raw, deliriously inventive, and powerfully moving piece de resistance that recalls, among other great films, Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets". Ryoo followed this startling debut with more commercial efforts: the ultra-violent heist film "No Blood No Tears
(2002)" and the martial arts fantasy "Arahan
(2004)" in the Steve Chow-Jackie Chan
mold. These films, while receiving strong support from some critics and fans, tended to draw mixed responses; Ryoo's bold experimentation with the well-established genre conventions was not always appreciated.
When I met Ryoo Seung-wan
in Seoul in the winter of 2003 after the press screening of "Old Boy"
, he revealed the idea for his next project: a real-life-inspired story of two boxers, one a hardened teenage criminal who takes up boxing in reform school, the other a retired boxer in his forties earning his keep as a "human punching bag", returning to the ring partly to redeem himself in the eyes of his son and wife. The movie would show their journeys in a parallel narrative structure. Only at the climax would the two protagonists meet as opponents in the final match for the Newcomer Championship. I realized then that Director Ryoo was eyeing Choi Min-sik
, the star of "Old Boy"
, for the role of the older man, to be pitted against his brother and brilliant young actor, Ryoo Seung-bum
, as the teenage would-be pugilist. Needless to say, shivers ran down my spine as I struggled to imagine Choi Min-sik
and Ryoo Seung-bum
squaring off in the "Four-Cornered Jungle" with their acting engines at full throttle.
Two years later the finished film is now at hand, a stunning sucker-punch to the gut. Choi Min-sik
plays Tae Shik, once a silver medallist during the Asian Game boxing competition, now degenerated into a semi-alcoholic ne'er-do-well. Ryoo Seung-bum
is Sang Hwan, a teenage thug, who first appears sporting Rastafarian dreadlocks and stealing a car radio. Sang Hwan takes up boxing only when he has to protect his hide against the prison's top dog, Kwon Rok (a Ryoo Seung-wan
regular, Kim Soo-hyun-IX
), a trained boxer. Gradually, agonizingly, these two men from different backgrounds and social positions, but united in their status as total losers, struggle to regain self-respect and purpose in their lives, through the only means they know: public rites of relentless self-punishment known as boxing.
Predominantly location-based, any potentially maudlin or preachy moments mercilessly sloughed off, and edited with electrifying finesse that sometimes telescopes all the essential information and emotional point of a full sequence into two successive shots, "Crying Fist"
is lean, mean, and fast, like Sang Hwan's character. Director Ryoo effortlessly weaves together the parallel stories of these two characters, who never cross one another's paths until the final bout, evidencing new-found confidence as a filmmaker.
Of course, it is the two brilliant actors, Choi and Ryoo Seung-bum
, who provide the centers of gravity for the show, but I found it interesting that the majority of Korean critics and viewers (and perhaps many non-Koreans as well) apparently saw Tae Shik's narrative as central to the film. To be sure, Choi Min-sik
delivers another affecting performance as Tae Shik, and the supporting players surrounding Tae Shik (Chun Ho-jin
's restaurateur, Oh Dal-soo
's vainglorious gangster, Im Won-hee
's bad news con artist) are all well cast and terrific. Yet, from my perspective, Tae Shik's character is too closely modeled after Choi Min-sik
's screen persona, reminding one of the equally pitiful loser Kang Jae in "Failan"
(2001). Unlike Kang Jae, however, Tae Shik does not seem to seek his redemption from inside his soul. His taking up " real " boxing can be read as an expression of the desire to regain his (fallen) patriarchal authority, especially in the eyes of his son. Tae Shik's daily humiliations of being a human punching bag and his decision to return to the ring are presented beautifully by director Ryoo, with just right amount of humor and lump-in-the-throat moments; but these sections do not have the hard-bitten, challenging quality of Sang Hwan's narrative.
Indeed, Sang Hwan's story is told by director Ryoo with the self-control and precision of a master. When Sang Hwan explodes in anger against Kwon Rok in the mess hall the sequence has the pent-up tension and release of energy that recalls James Cagney's meltdown in "White Heat". Other sequences set in the reformatory, Sang Hwan's boxing matches, and depictions of his family, including his tragically gentle but spineless father (Ki Joo-bong
, who exits the movie in a most startling way) and feisty grandmother (Na Moon-hee
) are presented with great economy, restraint, and, when needed, maximum impact.
is one of the most talented young actors working in Korea now. He is simply amazing as Sang Hwan. Ryoo, without any visible display of "acting techniques", essays a character so lost, so deep in despair, that his eyes have no gleam of pleasure or excitement, even when he is beating people up or stealing money and other things left and right. We are made to understand that Sang Hwan is not merely taciturn because he wants to be cool, but because he is dead to the world. Ryoo then proceeds to strip this frightening character of his defenses layer-by-layer, making him experience the pain of being literally skinned alive. As he weathers one family tragedy after another, he gradually reclaims his humanity. When Sang Hwan finally breaks down, the scene is as powerful as, or perhaps more powerful than, the tsunami of pure emotion Choi Min-sik
unleashed in the unforgettable climax of "Failan"
Of course, I won't reveal who wins the title of Newcomer Champion in the movie, but there is hardly any question that "Crying Fist"
is a winner. Tough and defiant, but ultimately hopeful and optimistic, the movie is an exciting showcase for the talents of the Ryoo brothers.
A Sio Film/Bravo Entertainment Production.
Distributed by Show East.
Written and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan
Starring Ryoo Seung-bum
, Choi Min-sik
, Im Won-hee
, Chun Ho-jin
, Seo Hye-rin
, Byun Hee-bong
, Na Moon-hee
, Ki Joo-bong
, Oh Dal-soo
Distributed and sold internationally by Show East.
EnterOne DVD, 2-Disc Special Edition. Dual Layer. Region 3. Audio: Korean (DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround), Subtitles: Korean, English, July 2005.
EnterOne's 2-Disc Special Edition of "Crying Fist"
comes in two folding cases in a slipcase. An attractive insert booklet is also included, the content of which overlaps with a special features documentary. Some photographs used in the booklet look suspiciously like DVD screen captures. The main feature has one commentary track by director Ryoo Seung-wan
. This might be a disappointment to (Korean-speaking) fans who had enjoyed the hustle-bustle talk-fests recorded for Ryoo's earlier films. Ryoo, like other New Korean Cinema directors Park Chan-wook
, Kim Jee-woon
, and Bong Joon-ho
, is extremely articulate about both technical and philosophical aspects of his movie. Ryoo's commentary explains in great detail, among other items of interest, how the high-speed camera was used to capture the spreading bubbles of mud and each whipping strand of locks on Sang-hwan's head; how switching to 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio allowed him to manipulate close-ups with greater ease; and how he had to choose between ad-libbed and looped songs and dialogues.
He mixes in a flurry of self-deprecating humor, a Ryoo Seung-wan
trademark. His voice does go up slightly in pitch, however, and does shake slightly, as he discusses his brother's onscreen breakdown, and how the younger Ryoo had to access his real personality and real-life memories to play that scene. Instead of directly praising his brother's magnificent acting, he prevaricates by describing how the music director Bang Joon-seok
wept his eyeballs out while recording music for this scene. Sly guy, but we know you love your kid brother, Mr. Ryoo - no use trying to misdirect us.
The feature itself is satisfactorily presented. Although the contrast level looks overly high, this is apparently due to the "bleaching" technique employed in the movie. The encoding bit rate is reasonably high. The audio skillfully captures the bone-crunching sound effects and guitar-based music score by Bang Joon-seok
. English subtitles are good but not as well done as those for Ryoo's early films, "Die Bad"
and "No Blood No Tears
". A note in passing: I have always thought the film's Korean title translates better as "My Fist Is Weeping", rather than "Crying Fist"
The second disc is jam-packed with special features - over three hours of content in total. The noted film critic Kim Yeong-jin (Film 2.0) provides an introduction, distinguishing "Crying Fist"
from superficially similar movies like Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby", and arguing that the film is best appreciated if the viewers try not to pigeonhole it as a "boxing film". The making-of documentaries are bundled into two groups. We learn about the hardship suffered by film crews in finishing the location-filming inside the Cheonan Reformatory in three days, have access to the interviews with supporting players, including director of photography Jeong Jeong-hoon in a surprise cameo, and watch Ryoo Seung-wan
acting out some of the roles for the benefit of the actors.
For me, the most informative aspect of the making-of docus was how Tae Shik's character was subtly "humanized" with the input from Choi Min-sik
and stunt/action coordinator Jung Doo-hong
, and became, in my opinion, a rather sentimentalized "Korean father" figure instead of a far more intimidating original conception of the character, a man who does not strike back, no matter how hurt he gets (Choi Min-sik
's comments suggest that he understood the project in strongly patriarchal terms, that it is ultimately about the importance of fatherhood -- I don't think Ryoo saw his film in quite that way). I wish director Ryoo had pushed through his original vision, although it is clear even to me that such characterization would not have gone too well with Choi Min-sik
playing the role.
A library of deleted scenes with optional directorial commentary is also included. Most scenes serve to impart more background information about Tae Shik. Only one deleted scene, showing Tae Shik's once-happy domestic life with his wife (Seo Hye-rin
) and son (Lee Joon-goo), looks like it could possibly have helped the film. Next are the interviews with real-life boxers reminiscing their past, a "life imitates art" documentary in which Jung Doo-hong
makes a debut in his forties as a boxer (with pretty worried-looking Ryoo Seung-wan
and film crew looking on and cheering) and a multi-angle presentation of the final bout from three different camera positions. The special features are rounded out by the footage of the Ryoo Brothers attending the director's week screening, held during the Cannes Film Festival, and TV spots and trailers.
receives a typically high-profile DVD release from EnterOne, with exhaustive special features revealing the evolution of the film and its characters over the course of production. Overall, a good package, with possibly the original screenplay as a DVD-ROM text or a booklet being the only missing essential component.
Kyu Hyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History University of California, Davis. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org