The promotional poster of South Korean film “My Punch-drunk Boxer”, whose original title is “Pansori Boxer”, looked pretty odd and silly to me when I came across it a few months ago. After all, the juxtaposition of boxing and a certain South Korea traditional music genre felt rather unlikely and preposterous to me, so I was not particularly excited about the movie even when I was about to attend its screening this afternoon, but, what do you know, I came to like it more than expected while willingly overlooking its several rough spots.
At the beginning, we get to know about the shabby daily life of Byeong-goo (Um Tae-goo), a former professional boxer who has worked in a local boxing gym belonging to his former coach Director Park (Kim Hee-won) since a certain incident which ruined his professional boxing career forever. Although Byeong-goo is often clumsy and forgettable, Director Park has tolerated Byeong-goo for years because of their long past, and he usually has Byeong-goo do a number of jobs including handing out promotional leaflets around their neighborhood.
However, Director Park is not so pleased when Byeong-goo tells him that he wants to try boxing again, probably because he has been mostly occupied with coaching a young, promising boxer who has been so far the only one training in the gym except a couple of little kids. While Byeong-goo really wants to enter the ring again, Director Park keeps distracting him with other things to do, and Byeong-goo conforms to that without complaint.
Via a series of flashback scenes, we come to know more about Byeong-goo’s past. During that time, he was far more confident and ambitious than before, and he also developed his own boxing style based on the musical rhythm of ‘Pansori’, which is a Korean genre of traditional musical storytelling. He was inspired by his Pansori singer girlfriend Ji-yeon (Lee Seol), and there is a sweet and sincere scene where they seriously promise to each other that they will do their best for being on the top of their respective professions.
Although he may never be back in the ring, Byeong-goo is determined to bring his unorthodox boxing style to the ring, and we later come to see how desperate he really is. Probably due to numerous physical impacts on his skull and brain during his short professional boxing career, he has been suffering from a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is also known as ‘punch drunk syndrome’ (Yes, that is what Muhammad Ali suffered from during his later years), and his doctor informs to him that his brain and mind will be deteriorated further during the few remaining years of his life.
Nevertheless, Byeong-goo does not tell anything about his serious medical condition to Director Park or Min-ji (Hyeri), a plucky young woman who has recently done some physical training under Byeong-goo’s guidance. Although Byeong-goo is not a very social guy, it does not take much for him and Min-ji to get closer to each other, and, as your average manic pixie dream girl, Min-ji is certainly willing to support his humble hope.
However, not so surprisingly, Byeong-goo’s disgraceful past emerges when he attempts to enter his old world. We see how he came to let down not only Director Park but also Ji-yeon, and the movie later gives us a sad moment when Byeong-goo is reminded again of what he lost because of that incident – and what he will probably lose because of his deteriorating mind.
While generating a considerable amount of pathos from Byeong-goo’s gloomy circumstance, the movie, which is expanded from director/co-writer Jeong Hyeok-gi’s short film “Dempseyroll: Confessions” (2014), maintains its sense of offbeat humor, and it surely does not disappoint us when our hero finally comes to have a boxing match in the ring (Is this a spoiler?). Although the climactic part looks modest on the whole, the movie slowly builds up the ground step by step, and everything culminates to a wacky but lively moment fueled by a piece of Pansori music played on the soundtrack.
Um Tae-goo, who previously impressed me a lot with his dry comic performance in “Adulthood” (2017), is comically awkward and pitiful in his low-key lead performance, and he ably conveys to us his character’s quiet determination without demanding any pity or sympathy from us. Byeong-goo is not a very likable person, but, at least, we come to care about whether he will eventually fulfill his wish, and that is why the final scene of the movie feels poignant to us, regardless of whether it is real or not.
Um is also supported well by several notable performers. While Kim Hee-won effortlessly goes back and forth between drama and comedy as required, Hyeri and Lee Seol bring some life and personality to their generic characters, and the special mention goes to a certain dog appearing in the film, which manages to steal the scene whenever it appears on the screen.
Overall, “My Punch-drunk Boxer” is a fairly entertaining film, and it has enough spirit and personality to compensate for its several notable flaws. Yes, it could push its story idea further, and it also could be improved more in terms of storytelling and characterization, but it throws punches mostly well in the end, so I will not complain for now.