My Punch-Drunk Boxer – Fantasia Film Festival

Directed by Hyuk Ki Jung

South Korea/ 2019/ 114 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Aphrase we’ve all heard and potentially used ourselves, Punch Drunk is the more common term for the medical condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease which causes irreparable damage, often as the result of repeated head trauma: a grave concern for boxers.

Allowing the past to provide context, My Punch-Drunk Boxer tells the story of Lee Byung-Gu (Tae-goo Eom), from former boxing star through to his departure from the sport and growing illness. Accused of doping, bringing ill-repute not only to himself but his mentor and practise gym, Byung-Gu now helps out around the struggling boxing pit as a cleaner, towel boy and shadow coacher when able. Upon meeting Min-Ji (Hyeri Lee), his passion to return to the sport returns and he sets out to hopefully repair the damages caused, while promoting Pansori, a rhythmic style set to a drumbeat.

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of Pansori incorporates rhythmic importance to the film, not only narratively but to seed the vitality of drumbeats and fluid motions of boxing into the film’s structure. It does mean an unwelcome stream of narration is added to the film’s soundtrack as a Pansori storyteller recites verses of what we’re seeing on screen or recaps some of the previous events of Byung-Gu’s life. While inoffensive, the mechanic is only used episodically, but does little else but drive down the pacing of the film and stagger tension or comic timing.

Jung’s way with a dry sense of humour adds authenticity into many of the character’s responses to adversity. As much of the film handles the sensitive matter of Alzheimer’s in the young, the humour thankfully isn’t crass, though it can be over-the-top, and adheres to a character’s traits. Tae-goo Eom’s more fluid movements and awkward moments demonstrate both an understanding of punch drunk syndrome, and a way to physically connect a mental condition with the audience. He never plays his condition for laughs. Instead, Tae-Goo personifies a marvellously created character.

And lordy, what at first presents itself as a budding companionship in its gentile charm is a model of cinematic romance. The chemistry Tae-Goo and Hyeri Lee possess is investible and builds a natural relationship which doesn’t then comprise the entirety of the narrative. Lee absolutely shines as a beacon of enjoyment. Her presence turns bleaker moments to warmth and demonstrates an equal prowess with the choreography as her costars.

Fundamentally raw, without pomp or flash, an earthy choreography drives the fight scenes – though there are few. My Punch-Drunk Boxer isn’t necessarily a sports film, rather a dramatic romantic comedy which centres itself around boxing culture and one man’s desire to make amends. As such, there is little in the way of opulent showboating, no big crowds. What is the focus is the history behind the practices, the precision of the movement and the camera’s ability to capture this (with admittedly a few too many jump cuts and quick edits).

Visually, the film balances, squeezing in the tighter frames as the crowds and narrow lanes of South Korea demand. Kang Min-Woo capitalises on the beaches and more open scenes, and there’s a palate cleanser as the art direction manipulates shadows against the purest of azure skies. It isn’t much, but when the film needs to, it finds a statement shot to carry forward a feeling or a tonal shift, opening up the airwaves from the stuffy gym or concentrated streets.

At its heart though, this film searches for Byung-Gu’s autonomy, and his perseverance to make amends and reclaim a semblance of life. My Punch-Drunk Boxer speaks to a diverse crowd, and ties together multiple genres, stumbling as it brings too much into what are otherwise beautifully stitched scenes. Respectful, humorous and charming, My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a definite for those searching to break from the traditional formula or find a sporting film with a broader scope.

Review published for The Wee Review

Get Duked! – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Ninian Doff 

UK / 2019 / 87 mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Not much happens in the Highlands, right? An endless majesty of woodland, glens and hills, the Scottish Highlands are home to scatterings of locals, farmers, wildlife, and a few unfortunate kids who have been roped into The Duke of Edinburgh Award. What, though, if while traversing the rolling fogs of this landscape, this envy of the world, something was watching you? Something archaic, powerful, and known to prey upon the ‘plebs’ – The Aristocracy.

Get Duked! finds three lads from Glasgow – Declan, Dean and DJ Beetroot – sent on a ‘character building’ mission to earn their The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, a series of orienteering, hiking and teamwork exercises, where they are joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley) – a boy keen to improve his university CV. Overcoming thirst, the cold and the munchies, this gang grow closer as they endeavour to finish the hike, claim their laminated certificates and escape this hellhole of hunters, bread-thieves and no phone signal.

Rather cleverly, and despite presumptions, the boys aren’t callous towards Ian – even if he is a bit of a nerd. Ninian Doff writes the group as just a bunch of attitude-driven teens and a bit thick – but never stereotyped as bullies or thugs. Much of this is down to engaging performances across the board, with Rian Gordon and Lewis Gribben bringing a particular energy and genuine enjoyment to the film that makes their characters relatable and entertaining.

Figured in the distance, high above his prey, ‘The Duke’ already stations himself in a superior status to the ‘vermin’ he hunts. A perfectly cast Eddie Izzard channels his notorious chatty, charismatic and distinctive English brand of humour directly into the character. His commitment to the role is complete with pompous posturing that creates a threat to our four lads – it’s just a bloody shame that Izzard isn’t used to his full potential after his introduction.

Somewhat disjointed, the film suffers from an issue with the direction and tone, with half of the cast performing a comedic film with a scary premise, while the others inhabit a horror film with humorous elements. Even in the principal cast, there seem to be moments where Doff’s direction leans heavily on the humour button at the cost of tension. An over-excess of ‘shock’ wording and gags slowly chips away at the feeling our characters are fleshed-out, and instead serve as mere walking punchlines. Most notably, Scottish treasure Georgie Glen flatters to deceive as The Duke’s wife; after an introduction which halts the film with a brief paralyzing fear, she quickly loses any aura of danger shortly after.

Patrick Miller’s distinct flair for wide shots place the threats these boys face far enough away to be acknowledged but close enough to register discomfort. Gradually, as The Duke and his wife grow closer to (and more frequently, move in front of) the camera, their impact lessens.

Doff’s directorial debut is, regardless of anything, an impressive outing. Get Duked! is a complete piece, wherein issues arise not from poor filmmaking, but directorial decisions and tone. For fans of crass humour, who dip their toes into the horror aesthetic, Doff’s work will undoubtedly bring laughs, cheap scares and a few banging tracks. For any hoping for a Highland Attack the Block or CountrycideGet Duked!‘s pulled punches and boasts of trashing elitist nature can’t cut the mustard – but it’s worth the watch just for legendary Scots actor James Cosmo getting high off rabbit droppings.

Available to watch now on Amazon Prime Video

Review published for The Wee Review

Cosmic Candy – Fantasia Festival 2020

Written & Directed by Rinio Dragasaki

Rating: 3 out of 5.

For Anna, there is one constant in her life – the titular Cosmic Candy, a popping candy confectionery which offers a calming relief. Her neighbours are boorish and her colleagues mindless, but the crux of her issues finds Anna stuck in an endless, dreamy loop where she holds tightly to her emotional baggage, with issues around moving on and forging relationships. Despite the fantasy aesthetic, and the film’s opening, it categorically falls more into an exaggerated reality, verging into melodrama. Refraining from tooth-rooting sweetness, Rinio Dragaski’s directorial debut attempts to utilise this spoonful of sugar to accentuate her narrative style but leaves behind a few too many cavities to truly succeed.

Many of the film’s subplots and side-narratives are two-dimensional afterthoughts, where preference should be to offer the relationship between Anna and Persa as much time as possible in the quasi-road-trip meets babysitting adventure. A comedy at heart, it has a distinct visual style and Grecian humour, capitalising on misery and persistent light-hearted sadism.

This relationship holds the frayed, sugary, film together, and thankfully the pair achieve chemistry which holds attention – but it is not all sunshine and day-glow radiance. It takes time, which does reflect the steady building of the pair’s camaraderie, but it makes for slow viewing as Anna takes in young neighbour Persa (following her dad’s disappearance) who for a chunk of the film’s opening outstretches the tolerable range of irritating.

In reality, this is precisely how we are meant to view the character and can be chalked up to Evi Dovelou‘s brilliant performance as the young neighbour, who by the conclusion has aided Anna in her emergence as a flawed being, but a profoundly more comfortable and stable person. The pairing adds to the film’s needed levity, with Dragaski’s writing surprisingly multifaceted and offering plenty for the pair to work with and develop on.

Though the structure of the film does slip on occasion from delightfully capricious into a sense of annoying incontinence, the one constant is Maria Kitsou, who throughout the film captures the essence of Dragaski’s intention of surrounding this one person with all of life’s relatable baggage and fuelling her with bizarre, lucid dream-states. Kitsou has a wide emotional range, and the pace at which she flips from passive to a bursting eruption of frustration is daunting and impressive.

The film’s principal dip into the realms of wacky and weird exposes itself at Anna’s breaking point, her relationships non-existent, and her dignity shattered and choices questioned. Anna is visited by a large, luminous being – the mascot of Cosmic Candy. Designed spectacularly, the short sequence features a blend of artistic and prosthetic effects which don’t feel out of place, even as Pinelopi Valti turns the dial to 11 in showcasing their creative ability and propels the film’s sound and colour palette into an interstellar state of surreal awakening. Manipulating a synthesised Clair De LuneYannis Veslemes concocts a rather intoxicating score which maintains the surreal nature of the film, even when it finds footing in reality. 

An illuminating outing for writer and director Dragaski, Cosmic Candy strays from the confines of safety, demonstrating the filmmaker’s ambitious ability to fuse illustrated fantasy with the doldrums of everyday life. With a vibrant visual style, even in the day-to-day pops of colour to stand out against the dusted greys, Cosmic Candy is a compelling look at the crippling weight of denial, and the implications of blaming others for your insecurities.

Review published for The Wee Review