South Korean independent film “Fighter” is atypical in its seemingly conventional sports drama. When it starts the story along with its struggling underdog heroine full of pluck and determination, it looks rather predictable on the surface, but then it deliberately sidesteps clichés and conventions as diligently focusing on its heroine’s emotional struggles as usual, and it surely earns some poignancy around the end of the story.
In the beginning, we get to know how everything still feels new and alien to Jin-ah (Lim Sung-mi), a young North Korean refugee woman who has just finished her adjustment period in South Korea. As living alone in a small one-room residence, she naturally feels lonely and isolated at times, but she has determined to save enough money for bringing her father from China to South Korea someday, and we soon see her doing several menial jobs for earning money as much as possible.
One of these jobs of hers is cleaning a small local boxing gym where a number of female professional boxers are training, and the movie calmly observes how Jin-ah gradually becomes interested in boxing. Although she initially focuses on doing her job, her eyes are often drawn to those female boxers training in the ring, and her growing interest in boxing is soon noticed by Tae-soo (Beak Seo-bin), a young assistant to the gym director who turns out to be very interested in befriending in Jin-ah.
Tae-soo later attempts to show more of her talent to the gym director, but that is the last thing Jin-ah wants for now. Probably due to her very difficult time before coming to South Korea, she does not trust others that much, and she is also occupied with a certain private matter besides the one involved with her father. It turns out that her long-lost mother has been in South Korea since she escaped from North Korea alone many years ago, and their meeting feels pretty awkward to say the least. Watching how her mother has lived pretty well in an affluent neighborhood, Jin-ah feels more resentment toward her mother, who still feels guilty about her choice in the past but does not know what to do with Jin-ah.
Meanwhile, the gym director comes to discern and then confirm that Jin-ah does have potential, and Jin-ah accepts his offer once she sees that she may get much more money from playing boxing. Although female professional boxing is surely a minor field compared to male professional boxing, she may earn a lot if she can reach to the top of the field, and that is certainly preferable to earning less day by day via her current jobs.
Now you may get a pretty good idea on what follows next, but then the movie takes a dry and unconventional approach to its main subject. While we do not see much of Jin-ah’s athletic progress along the story, the movie even does not have many boxing scenes, and most of these few boxing scenes are just briefly presented without much tension or excitement. In case of a certain key boxing sequence later in the story, it is simply unfolded in a stuffy space with a handful of spectators, and how it is played out in the end certainly goes against our expectation.
Nevertheless, the screenplay by director/write/editor Jero Yun still holds our attention as paying more attention to its heroine’s emotional issues. When she is notified that her father is in a very serious trouble, Jin-ah becomes more desperate and anxious than before, and the presence of her mother in South Korea hurts and angers her more than before. What eventually happens between her and her mother does not surprise us much, but that moment is delivered with enough dramatic impact, and we come to care more about whether their longtime family issue can be really resolved.
Above all, the movie is firmly held together by Lim Sung-mi, who gives a strong performance filled with quiet but palpable intensity. As reflected by her narration at the beginning and end of the movie, every day is another fight for life to Jin-ah, and Lim did a splendid job of embodying her character’s steely determination even when her expressive face does not seem to signify anything at all. Right from her first appearance in the film, we can easily sense how Jin-ah is willing to struggle and fight more, and you may find yourself rooting for Jin-ah a lot around the time when she is really ready to take a forward step for her life and new interest.
Several notable main cast members around Lim ably support her without overshadowing her at all. As a good-hearted lad willing to support the girl he comes to like and admire, Beak Seo-bin is likable in his modest supporting turn, and he and Lim complement well each other via the contrasting personalities of their respective characters. While Oh Kwang-rok ably suggests sincere care and attention behind the jaded appearance of his character, Lee Seung-yeon, who previously played one of the crucial supporting roles in Kim Bo-ra’s “House of Hummingbird” (2018), is also solid as Jin-ah’s estranged mother.
In conclusion, “Fighter” did as much as intended in its own way as defying clichés and conventions, and the overall result is another notable South Korean female drama film of this year. Although it is only March at this point, I and other South Korean audiences were already served with several commendable female movies such as “I Don’t Fire Myself” (2020), “Black Light” (2020), and “Three Sisters” (2020) during last three months, and I am really looking forward to watching whatever may come next during the rest of this year.