Sang-hwan (played by Ryoo Seung-bum) is a young man with rather poor decision-making abilities. He's the kind of guy who thinks that sticking it to the cops is proof of his street cred. In reality, no one actually cares about street cred. They just know that Sang-hwan is a jerk who's not really worth sticking up for. Tae-shik (played by Choi Min-sik) has the opposite problem. The older man cares so little about the way other people see him that he straight up publically humiliates himself for...what exactly?
That's the overriding question of the narrative behind "Crying Fist". It's about two men who very slowly come to terms with the fact that they're living pathetic, useless lives and that this needs to change somehow. Emphasis on slowly. The bulk of the film really is just Sang-hwan and Tae-shik moping about, testing audience pity by their just completely failing to catch on to how worthless they are as human beings.
Boxing ends up being the ultimate framing device connecting Sang-hwan and Tae-shik- although it takes quite some time for the story to actually get that far. That's because "Crying Fist" doesn't actually have that much to do with boxing. In a past life Tae-shik was in fact quite good at boxing. And in one memorably pathetic scene Tae-shik quickly realizes that he does not appear to have learned any significant moral life lessons from the time he spent punching other men in the face. It's quite appropriate that in the big climactic heart-to-heart with his son, Tae-shik's advice is quite literally "don't become like me".
And that's the main humanizing element behind "Crying Fist". Yes, Sang-hwan and Tae-shik are pitiful human beings. All the same, they're still human beings. Maybe they don't deserve respect, or even the chance to get back their dignity. But simply by realizing they've lost their dignity in the first place, Sang-hwan and Tae-shik are able to experience personal growth. It's quite telling how, when the boxing match part of the movie finally starts, it's actually fairly relieving to see their bodies being battered rather than their souls. The souls are what's important.
There's relatively little story here, so "Crying Fist" ultimately sinks or swim on the strength of its performances. Luckily enough the quality in that department is excellent. Both Ryoo Seung-bum and Choi Min-shik put in powerful performances as men who aren't really interesting so much as they are hopeless. Yet piece by piece, conversation by conversation, they start to realize that the real enemy isn't the vicissitude of life, but their willingness to take responsibility rather than self-pity.
The end result is an excellent piece of filmmaking that's often at its best in the most subtle moments. Director Ryoo Seung-wan correctly realizes that Sang-hwan and Tae-shik aren't islands. It's the little things they don't notice, the way the camera looks at them, the way that other people react, which ultimately elicits and inspires genuine change. After all, does it really matter in the end whether they win or lose, just so long as Sang-hwan and Tae-shik know what it feels like to make an actual serious effort?
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Crying Fist""
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