Min-sik Choi has only appeared in a handful of films since his turn as the iconic Dae-su Oh in Chan-wook Park's Oldboy (2003), where he delivered an amazing performance which showed a vast emotional range, some brilliant facial expressions and other character quirks, and above all, a glaring vulnerability. His subsequent appearance in Seung-wan Ryoo's Crying Fist (2005) was the primary attraction for my seeking out this film, but Crying Fist also has a very talented director at its helm with Choi sharing top billing with the director's brother, Seung-beom Ryu, who is a very talented young actor. Ryoo's debut feature, Die Bad (2000) I saw very early on, when the Korean New Wave of the late-90s was catching this Western white guy's eye. Die Bad was amazing: a gritty, violent low-budget flick about t-shirt-and-jeans thugs, comprised of multiple stories which earned many a Tarantino comparison but had a very unique and original vibe. His commercial follow-up saw more money but no compromise: No Blood No Tears (2002) is a glossy and violent tale about two women caught somewhat reluctantly in an organized crime squabble. No Blood No Tears has also one of the best final martial arts confrontations that I've seen since Jackie Chan's final fight in Chia-Liang Liu's Drunken Master 2 (1994). By the time Ryoo made Arahan in 2004 romantic comedies were amazingly popular in Korea (and with Western Asian-cult film fans) with titles such as Jae-young Kwak's My Sassy Girl (2001) and Jin-gyu Cho's My Wife is a Gangster (2001) being standouts. Arahan stars Seung-beom Ryu and has some sweet romantic comedy with martial arts and fantasy elements but felt rife with comprimise. Very PG-13 in its feel, Arahan suffers from its broad appeal and doesn't hold up well compared to Ryoo's previous films nor other romantic comedies of the period. Prior to Crying Fist I viewed City of Violence (2006) and really hold it as the worst work that I've seen from Ryoo: a tired and bloody action picture that is not only derivative but lacks almost any enthusiasm. I know for a fact, however, beyond his missteps that Ryoo is talented, and Crying Fist, with the addition of Choi and Ryu and its storyline, was unlike any film that Ryoo has made and had potential to be great. Here we go:
The opening scene is a credit to both Choi and Ryoo: Choi is Tae-shik Gang, who dons his boxing headgear, sweats, and boxing gloves in an open-air shopping promenade. It's early morning and just about everything you need to know about Tae-shik, he is going to tell you as he picks up a loudspeaker. Tae-shik is an ex-boxer who won the Silver medal at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games and for a sum any passer-by may punch on him for one minute. Within seconds, just by the look on Choi's face and Ryoo's composition, this is a pathetic site. I was clearly anticipating a man who would for money allow himself to be pummelled by by-standers but not so. Tae-shik reveals himself to be quite the boxer and everyone who gets to take a shot wears boxing gloves in a one-minute sparring match with the one-time champ. Choi's Tae-shik doesn't throw any punches: he ducks and weaves from most of the blows and only takes a few. His pitch to onlookers is to allow himself to absorb others' aggression (for others' relief) while he gets some money in his pocket (later revealed that he desperately needs).
The following scene sees Ryu as Sang-hwan Yoo, sporting a nice head of dreadlocks and currently in a pristine Mercedes Benz. Yoo's stealing the car radio and is spotted by local police. The police give chase but Yoo gets away, just barely. Later, Yoo is seen smacking some local boys and taking their money with Yoo getting arrested: apparently the young locals were Yoo's crime crew and some parents filed a police complaint against Yoo for his crew beating up their children. The victims' parents agree to settle the police matter in a civil suit, and Yoo's gentle and poor father has to deplete his savings to bail out his son. Ungrateful and still angry, Yoo attacks an older gentleman in a parking garage, thinking the old man's satchel holds a cache of serious cash, but alas, no: the old man dies from a heartattack, caused by Yoo's robbery, and Yoo's arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
Boxing becomes the primary motif in Crying Fist and it's a universal theme, not only in cinema but in art, about struggle and confrontation. Choi's Tae-shik is separated from his wife and lives away from her and his young son. Tae-shik has made a series of bad financial investments, including many "loans" to his hapless brother, who gambles them away in speculative investments or at the casino. Creditors are following Tae-shik everywhere, and Tae-shik is even indebted to the local mafia. Tae-shik believes that all he has left is his boxing talent and integrity, and getting the crap beat out of him everyday for money is the best solution. Yoo gets into a fight immediately in the prison's cafeteria, and a local guard takes pity on him. In a genuine attempt to rehabilitate him, the guard allows Yoo to join the prison boxing team, where he'll learn a sport to combat his aggression (and learn a little life discipline along the way). An extremely bold artistic choice is made by Ryoo in Crying Fist: for its two-hour-plus runtime, Ryoo keeps Tae-shik and Yoo's storyline truly parallel: there is no literal connection between the two characters beyond the thematic connection of boxing. The two characters do meet eventually, and I believe that anyone can guess, with this theme, how the two meet.Now approaching a thousand words, I thought that I would not write about Crying Fist. The film is unlike anything Ryoo has done, thematically and aesthetically. His previous films stylistically are more contrived and artistic, but in Crying Fist, Ryoo shows his command of the modern style: handheld camera, natural light, realistic make-up, costumes, settings, etc. Choi and Ryu both give hearfelt, emotional, and wonderful performances. I actually got teary-eyed with more than a few scenes (I'm such a damn softie!). In a lot of ways, Crying Fist personifies the ideal Post-Modern film: aesthetically challenging and crafted yet heartfelt and emotional: a balance of the intellectual and spiritual. However, Crying Fist lacks greatness. The narrative choice of separating the two characters hurts: while watching both character's stories play out, each alone, lacks a compelling viewer interest. While personally I always feel for someone who is beset with tragedy, either because of external circumstances or of their own making. However, in art, I feel kind of cheated when the characters are beset by tragedies occuring outside of their own making, such as diseases afflicting the unsuspecting or the character who dies in a random accident. Tragedy such as this fills Crying Fist, alongside the characters' own created conflicts and problems. It feels to easy to pull a tear from me, and I think that is what Ryoo is doing. As a caveat, I will say to remember these eyes belong to the Western white guy and not from the culture from where the film was made: a lot of the dialogue in Crying Fist hints to the culture which once was and is now in Korea. Having the two characters represent two generations of Koreans perhaps speaks more to those within and is a stronger artistic choice than it appears. Cultural references, of which I am woefully ignorant, will be lost on me. Crying Fist has two great performances and is for the most part, compelling and interesting. Let's see what Ryoo has coming next.