In My Punch-Drunk Boxer, director Jung Hyuk Ki and co-writer Cho Hyn Chul show how memories, music, culture, desperation, and love are elements that humans use to create connections with the things and people we long for, in this beautifully funny and sweet film. There are two things that Lee Byung Gu (Eom Tae Goo) has left in the world that are uniquely his, Pansori boxing, and the love he has for it, but when he receives a devastating diagnosis, the realization that he’s about to lose one creates a new sense of desperation to hold onto it as much as he can. Knowing that time is running out, looking to former World Champion George Foreman as a role model, Byung Gu becomes determined to begin boxing again.
Inspired by Kang Ji Yeong (Lee Seol) a pansori artist and his first love, Byung Gu uses the distinct rhythm of Pansori, the traditional Korean style of storytelling told through singing and drumming. Similar to the Drunken Master technique made famous by Jackie Chan in the 1978 film of the same name, Byung Gu at first looks uncoordinated during the slower intro, but when the tempo increases to hwimori, he’s quick and precise. Unfortunately, this is the only time he moves like this, and the reason why is heartbreaking.
Due to the years as a competing boxer, Byung Gu developed Punch-drunk Syndrome, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition suffered by athletes who participate in contact sports like NFL football, and boxing due to repeated strikes to the head. Overtime those who have this condition develop various symptoms including the halting unsteady walk, awkward posture, tremors, and memory lapses that Byung Gu has. It’s the cruelest irony that the sport he loves so much is slowly turning his body against him.
After being banned by the national committee, his only source of work has been doing odd jobs around the local gym where he was previously the top athlete. There he faces rude comments and dismissive behavior from the only member, Gyo Hwan (Choi Jung Young), an amateur boxer training for his first match, and twin boys. Like many people who lack compassion and empathy for those who are different to them, these three have no shame in showing disrespect towards their senior. When this happens, the gym director (Kim Hee Won) does nothing to reprimand them. He just scoffs and goes back to whatever he was doing, as he also does whenever Byung Gu mentions his desire to compete again.
Things begin to change for Byung Gu when he meets Min Ji (Lee Hyeri) their newest gym member. Despite his repeated insistence that he’s “bad”, Min Ji refuses to believe him. Her optimistic attitude, and belief that people should try to achieve their dreams so as not to have regrets, is just what Byung Gu needs. Like Ji Yeon, Min Ji is also a janggu drummer, and she becomes fascinated with the change in Byung Gu when he demonstrates Pansori Boxing. As My Punch-Drunk Boxer progresses, so does their relationship. Over time there’s a notable change in Byung Gu’s appearance and demeanor. At the beginning, Byung Gu’s stature was such that he always seemed to be folding in on himself, as though he didn’t want to take up space. He kept his hair shaggy, hiding his eyes. But after meeting Min Ji, slowly begins standing straighter and more confident in speaking up.
When Byung Gu tells him that their age and financial circumstances shouldn’t stop them from at least trying to do what they want, Director finally he decides to train him. When Director learns of the diagnosis of punch-drunk syndrome, his attitude towards Byung Gu changes. Before he would dismiss Byung Gu anytime he mentioned training, belittling him, saying that who he was now, is who he would always be. Now he’s more patient, filled with guilt over missing the more than obvious signs that something was wrong. How he spent over ten years seeing the obvious deterioration of Byung Gu’s physical, cognitive, and mental states without suspecting there was a medical reason, is a mystery. Perhaps he pretended not to know because he felt some responsibility that maybe his role as the trainer played was a contributing factor.
Because My Punch-Drunk Boxer is, at its core, a sports movie, which means that there is of course a training montage, and it’s good. Finally able to train once more, the old Byung Gu reemerges. We see the young man who was sure of himself, comfortable in his physical capabilities. Looking at the contrasts of who Byung Gu was ten years ago, and who he is now, Um Tae Goo is impressive at essentially playing two characters. Someone before and after developing a disability. His cognitive impairment and physical struggles are disabilities. Though it’s never mentioned in the film, it’s important to make this distinction. In his acting, Um never feels as though he’s doing a caricature of someone suffering from a debilitating disease. His portrayal will be relatable for many suffering from conditions like Multiple Sclerosis which has physical and cognitive symptoms similar to CTE.
Jung does a great job at keeping the tone balanced as a sports film, romantic comedy, and emotional drama. My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a genuinely funny and heartwarming film, with characters that everyone can enjoy and learn from, especially Min Ji. She never treated Byung Gu any differently to others. She saw his limitations, and still encouraged him to do what he wanted. Lee and Um have great chemistry together, making the growing relationship between their characters feel natural and earned.
Matching the particular rhythm of hwimori, Byung Gu’s movements are a fascinating mixture of traditional boxing techniques combined with slow, weaving body movements, and quick strikes and jabs. At first, Pansori Boxing may seem odd to some, but for others (like me) the way Byung Gu interprets the rhythms of the drum into movement might be familiar. In the weaving steps, and extended arms I saw similarities to Bajan Stick-licking and Brazilian Capoeira. Even the beats used in the music and the method of storytelling for the film’s narration have are comparable to how Calypsonians in the Caribbean tell stories through traditional folk songs.
One constant in this world and the theme of My Punch-Drunk Boxer is the inevitability of change. Whether we like it or not, the world changes. Humans are always finding ways to improve technology, develop property, and find new ways to incorporate the traditional, with modern. Perhaps I’m being hasty in saying that what the film does with Pansori Boxing is innovative, but I look at what this new fictional fight style – for now – and what the members of SmulNori Hanullim did with samulnori when they brought it to international attention, by taking their traditional genre of Korean folk music and combining it with other art forms such as jazz and hip-hop which are both Black contemporary musical genres. Additionally, George Foreman, a Black boxer being Byung Gu’s hero is an interesting is something to take note of when it comes to the impact of Black culture in Korean society.
The blending of old and new is something that humans have always done, and as Byung Gu and Ji Yeong’s personal mantra says “What’s most Korean, is universal,” And it’s true. Countless people all over the world are inspired by films, whether it’s to play a new musical instrument, martial art, or learn more about their culture or how people with disabilities like Byung Gu aren’t afraid to take chances in pursuing their dreams.
My Punch-Drunk Boxer screened at Fantasia Fest 2020.
My Punch-Drunk Boxer
My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a genuinely funny and heartwarming film, with characters that everyone can enjoy and learn from, especially Min Ji. She never treated Byung Gu any differently to others. She saw his limitations, and still encouraged him to do what he wanted. Lee and Um have great chemistry together, making the growing relationship between their characters feel natural and earned.