After three hard-knuckle features that brought a unique spin to East Asian actioners, young South Korean writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan takes a softer — well, relatively softer — line, with character more to the fore, in drama “Crying Fist.” Tale of a veteran pugilist and young punk with attitude, whose checkered paths finally cross in the boxing ring, provides meaty roles for veteran Choi Min-shik (“Old Boy”) and helmer’s regular lead, his brother Ryoo Seung-beom. However, at two-hours-plus, pic is a good 30 minutes too long, making this a much harder sell in offshore markets than his barnstorming f/x actioner “Arahan.”
Raggedy Gang Tae-shik (Choi), just turned 40, is a former silver medalist at the 1990 Asian Games who’s now reduced to being a human punching bag in the street for “anyone’s who’s mad as hell.” (For $10, men get one minute, women two.) Gang is alienated from his young son (Lee Jun-gu), has been kicked out by his wife (Seo Hye-rin), and is befriended only by a charitable restaurateur who gives him meals.
Hair-trigger Yu Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan, initially sporting dreadlocks) is thrown into juvenile detention for mugging a guy, bites another punk’s ear in a commissary fight and is then introduced by the juvenile detention center’s trainer to boxing as a way to work off his anger. Yu finds the rules and regulations of the ring a tougher challenge than street brawling, and news of the sudden death of his father (Gi Ju-bong), with whom he always had an uncomfortable relationship, leaves him somewhat subdued.
Meanwhile, Gang’s situation is going from bad to worse. His earnings are stolen by a friend, Weon-tae (Lim Weon-heui), who already owes him money, he’s savagely beaten up by creditors, and his vision is starting to blur from a lifetime of slugging. Despite medical advice to take it easy, he still decides to enter a super-lightweight contest in a shot to restore his personal dignity.
Yu has decided to take part in the same meet, to try to beat a superior fighter, Roc (Kim Su-hyeon).
In a way typical of South Korean cinema, film takes its time building up character in the first half-hour, but manages to sustain interest thanks to richly drawn performances by the whole cast and shafts of off-center humor. (Though the brawling is graphically portrayed, helmer Ryoo always casts an ironic eye on his characters’ bravado and snarling.) Subsequent 45 minutes also holds the attention as the protags change in interesting ways, and the cross-cutting between the two entirely separate stories never becomes annoying.
It’s in the final stretch that the movie starts to seriously take on water, with yet more training and fighting scenes that add nothing to our knowledge of the protags, plus some obvious gear-changes as the writers resolve loose ends and try to crank up the drama for the final meeting in the ring.
Ryoo’s second feature, “No Blood No Tears,” also had two protags of different backgrounds and ages (female in this case), but intertwined their stories in more satisfying and dramatic ways. By keeping Gang and Yu’s stories completely separate, there’s no natural sense of climax in their eventual meeting: Apart from a shared desire to gain closure on their past lives, the men have nothing else in common and zero personal antagonism. Their actual bout is relatively brief and anti-climactic, cooked up with overt use of music.
Choi, who’s a past master at playing flawed characters (“Failan,” “Chihwaseon,” as well as “Old Boy”), attacks his most physical role to date with glee. Ryoo Seung-wan also reaches down into darker depths than usual as the punk with fire in his belly. Supporting cast is equally flavorsome, with a real street feel, backed by d.p. Jo Yong-gyu’s coldly-processed widescreen lensing.
Released locally April 1, film punched its way to a nifty but not socko 1.7 million admissions. Version unspooled at Cannes was the original one, though an international version, shorter by some 10 minutes, also exists.