There’s a seemingly throwaway scene about a half hour into My Punch-Drunk Boxer in which protagonist Byung-gu asks a repairman to fix the old tube-style television in their gym. The tech explains what’s probably already apparent to the audience: that the parts and labor would cost more than the TV is worth, it’s really better to just buy a new set. This would typically be the end of the conversation, but Byung-gu insists on his request to fix the TV.
If his reasons are not evident in that moment, then they’re certainly soon understood, and even directly stated in an unrelated conversation.
Byung-gu and “the Director”, his coach and the owner of their gym, are old models on the cusp of obsolescence. Byung-gu, formerly a top professional boxing talent, is a has-been, and the Director’s once flourishing boxing gym and coaching career have floundered.
What’s not at first evident is why their lives have taken this path, only that Byung-gu is suddenly hungry to take another crack at the ring and the Director, for reasons his own, discourages it completely.
Now 29, Byung-gu suffers from debilitating brain damage caused by his time in the ring, making him forgetful and socially awkward and off-putting, and also contributing to a certain narrative structure: he doesn’t fully remember the personal mistakes and tragedies that ended his boxing career, which allows these discoveries to be revealed to the audience. A new friendship with Min-ji, a girl taking lessons at the gym, encourages him to again strive for greatness.
Terminal diseases and Korean dramas are no strangers (to the point of being stereotypical), but the love which develops between Byung-gu and Min-ji is never treated as cheap melodrama or blatant tugging at the heartstrings, and their strange relationship has a certain charm.
My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a tremendous film, and intriguing in its unspooling of the central question as more and more is revealed about Byung-gu’s past, lost to a combination of amnesia and denial. Similarly, the more we learn about the Director and their shared history, the more his true motivations become evident.
Stylistically, the boxing form in display is something really invigorating and amazing to watch. Byung-gu takes inspiration from pansori (a form of traditional Korean narration set to rhythmic drums), creating a unique personal style of pansori boxing pioneered by himself and his old girlfriend, an expert drummer.
Naturally Byung-gu finally does make it back into the ring, but the requisite sports movie ‘big match” actually manages to be unlike anything you’ve seen before, which is a tough thing to pull off anymore.
Beautifully shot, often touching, and a more than little odd, My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a terrific tale of sacrifice and second chances.
Plus it’s got some nice Rocky callbacks.
The screen images in this review were captured from an online screener provided by the film’s distributor. The watermarks on the images are an aspect of this specific altered presentation.