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

Jesters: The Game Changers – Fantasia Film Festival

Written & Directed by Joo-Ho Kim

South Korea/ 2019/ 108 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Censorship, propaganda, and disinformation are the unchanging tools of dictators, bureaucrats, and corrupt officials. To maintain his image after usurping the throne, King Sejo seeks to employ Jesters, Korean storytellers, to manipulate public perception into seeing him as a kind, merciful man who is deserving of his stolen throne. These rogues, who seek nothing more than coin, food, and status, find themselves locked in a struggle of preserving their lives or upholding the truth.

Pioneers of live entertainment, Jester: The Game Changers pays tribute to the industry’s origins – the harlequins, bards and storytellers who formed the foundations of what would become live theatre, performance, and eventually evolve into cinema. Each of the gang’s racketeering ops involves some form of practical effect, or costume, or spontaneous genius resulting in what would come to be known as an instrument of chronophotography. Much of the film relies on stunt-work, both working into the comedic angles writer and director Joo-Ho Kim is searching for, and the authenticity needed to captivate viewers.

Tying into the past, Joo-Ho Kim does a valiant job of drawing the film into historical pieces of South Korean myth and legend. Much of the narrative ties neatly into a true counterpart text, The Loyal Six. This book, a tale on the twisted landscape of political bureaucracy and drive for self-fulfilment, parallels the film’s less than subtle (yet poignant) stance on fake news.

Throughout the film, this veil of utilising the media of the time (the storytellers) as a tool to manipulate public perception of the ruling class is played off as comedic, if still a persistent warning. Come the film’s final third, not only do the performances up the ante of graveness but also accentuate the dangers of image manipulation and political power-play. Notably, Jin-woong Cho’s Deok-ho is performed with such conviction it solidifies the execution. Embracing his disciple as a lead Jester, he utilises his key talents in disarming the King and the treacherous Han Myeong Hoe.

The entire troupe bring something unique to their characters, with the five Jesters all giving off particular energy and character growth. This is perhaps most notable with Seul-gi Kim, the only woman of the group and certainly one of the more rounded and engaging to watch. A fiery character, the pacing in which she moves is choreographed to a knifepoint, with razor timing for humour and an ounce of otherworldliness for the film’s brief supernatural moments.

Joo Sung-Rim’s cinematography capitalises on the physicality of these performances – chiefly Yoon Park and Hee-soon Park’s. And as much as Jesters: The Game Changersmight strike a comedic note, it bathes itself in such intense sunlight as a cultural adventure, that the film radiates moments of clarity and some magnificent shots. There is plenty to appreciate beyond the physical props and set design, as Sung-Rim balances absurdity with surprising respect for Korean mythos and landscape.

This all scrambles wildly and seemingly chaotically into a climax which ties together story strands, both obvious and seemingly inconsequential into a thoroughly tense, humbling finale which demonstrates superb cultural storytelling. As villains are revealed, plots unfurled, and journeys ended, this high-octane finale reminds us all the infinite resource we find in stories, how new ones are created and shared all of the time – and the dangers of the false liars who trap themselves in their own.

Some seek to have their history altered, corrupting the facts to ensnare gratitude and infamy to preserve a legacy. Often, filmmakers wish to lift the lid, exposing the rotten underbelly of things we have moved from; or in the case of Jesters: Game Changers, to demonstrate how ancient techniques shift form but continue in intention. As tight a dramatic piece as it is a physical comedy, Joo-Ho Kim’s film airs the dirty laundry of propaganda and unfurls its close-knit roots in the foundations of storytelling.

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