A defector from the North starts a new life in the South, finding focus by doing battle in the boxing ring in this intriguing, if overly vapid, character study
Berlin International Film Festival, 4 March 2021
Jero Yun is well-placed to provide a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of a North Korean ‘refugee’ adapting to life in the South after his prior shorts and documentaries have tackled such issues.
Having spent time directly with North Koreans, Yun is able to inform a script that is character-focused in nature, anchored well here by a fine lead performance from Lim Sung-mi.
Traditionally a male lead narrative arch, the redemption in the boxing ring is given the female treatment here, but the importance of the sport is secondary, operating as an on-the-nose nod to the scrap our central character is fighting in life.
Ji-na (Lim) has just completed social adjustment training after arriving in South Korea from the North. She moves into a small studio apartment in Seoul and starts to work in a restaurant.
Seeking a second job to fund her father’s arrival in the country also, she starts as a cleaner in a local boxing gym, but is spotted by the trainers as a potential talent in the ring. A former solider in the North, she can throw her fists and starts on the journey to becoming a professional.
While she may have managed to escape the North, she is a victim of discrimination in the South. Stereotyping works both ways in North-South relations. She also gathers male attention, some of which is based on the assumption that this refugee will be more than grateful for the attention.
The main issue of the film is not its understated nature – that format generally works best for such character studies – but rather than several technical elements of the film fall short. The boxing fight scenes looks deeply manufactured, while other points of conflict simply fail to bubble. There are two separate scenes where a character ends up in hospital stemming from an altercation that looked unlikely to injury a child.
The boxing notion exists as a footnote – this is not a boxing film. As such, there is scant dramatic weight around the boxing scenes. There is also a highly inconsistent view of Ji-na’s boxing skills, at once a budding Muhammad Ali, then quickly looking like her gloves are too heavy for her.
There is still plenty to like. It leans into one of the most unique aspects of Korean cinema, the outsider refugee who looks and speaks just like those from their new home. A single nationality divided by ideology. Watching onscreen discrimination is always jarring, but it is a special talent of Korean cinema to see it between citizen of the North and South where there is so much common ground.
A superb notion for a film, well-acted, but betrayed by being unable to produce the emotional weight of a top character study and mustering none of the magic of the ring like a Crying Fist (2005) achieves.