Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email, with the interviewee’s answers translated from Korean to English
During this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, I watched My Punch-Drunk Boxer, a Korean film about loss, memories, growth, and pansori boxing. Directed by Jung Hyuk-ki and co-written with Cho Hyn-Chul, the film is as unique as the one-of-a-kind sport portrayed in the film, and to learn more, I interviewed Jung about pansori boxing, the characters, and what inspired them. To read a full review of the film, head here.
Carolyn Hinds: In My Punch-Drunk Boxer, the connections between memories, culture and love are interwoven throughout the film, was this your main intent when further developing the script?
Jung Hyuk-ki: My Punch-Drunk Boxer starts from my short film Dempseyroll: Confession, as it shows in the title, the theme of the short film was the reflection and regret of the past.
As I expanded Dempseyroll: Confession to a full-length film, I found that pansori and boxing have had common paths within Korean society, in that both of them are gradually being forgotten and gone. The hero Byung-gu also forgets himself due to punch drunk syndrome. I wanted to talk about the story of ‘something being gone and forgotten’ through My Punch-Drunk Boxer which is a combination of Pansori and boxing as well as Byung-gu who loses his memory and is being forgotten.
I wrote the scenario according to the theme of ‘the story of something being gone and forgotten. I wanted the main characters – Coach Park who can’t give up operating the old gym, Min-ji who likes film camera over digital camera, Foreman the stray dog abandoned by its owner, Kyo-hwan who lives with his elderly grandmother, and the twin brothers who leave the gym because of redevelopment – and events to be connected to ‘things being gone and forgotten’ and flow with Byung-gu in the center.
I wanted to reflect that theme in the movie’s formational area and atmosphere. I wrote the scenario based on classic plot structure and I also hoped for the screen texture and the film’s air/mood to have the sense of a classic film.
CH: For many people, their culture is an important part of their identity, would you say it’s the same for Lee Byung-gu, and if so in what ways?
JHK: For the movie, I focused on the abovementioned theme ‘things being gone and forgotten’ rather than Korean culture. The reason Byung-gu wanted to complete Pansori boxing is to prove his life, as both Pansori and boxing are being forgotten just like him.
I think this is connected to the sentiment of han (恨). It is a Korean emotional expression that encompasses all of sadness, regret, and resentment. It’s very important in Pansori and we often say that a good voice has han. I wanted to resolve Byung-gu’s han built up during the movie through the Pansori boxing at the last boxing ring.
CH: For Lee Byung-gu, his pansori boxing is the one thing he has control of. Because it is a fight style and art form that he created, he controls how it develops and the rules its to be played by. As a writer and director, do you relate to him in that way? Especially during the production process?
JHK: As I was both the director and writer of the movie, I could control many aspects like Byung-gu did Pansori boxing. I set characters and stories according to ‘things being gone and forgotten’ and I put the characteristics of classic film on the formation of the plot and the form of the film.
I also wanted to put unconventional comedy and an offbeat cinematic rhythmic sense on this classic form of film. As pansori boxing happens on an offbeat according to the janggu beat, I wanted to make My Punch-Drunk Boxer an unconventional movie with an offbeat comedy and rhythmic sense.
CH: Does that help you connect to and understand him better as a character?
JHK: The character Byung-gu has been with me for 6 years since my short film Dempseyroll: Confession in 2013, so I’ve had more time to understand and empathize with the character.
CH: How did you come up with the concept of pansori boxing, of mixing the traditional sounds and rhythm of pansoric music, and Western style boxing?
JHK: The initial idea of My Punch-Drunk Boxer started from a joke. When I was attending college with the actor Jo Hyeon-cheol who made Dempseyroll: Confession with me, I saw someone playing janggu and I thought it’d be funny if someone would do shadowboxing according to janggu beat. Hyeon-cheol was learning boxing for hobby and I found it very funny seeing him shadowboxing with janggu beat, so I started a movie about ‘boxing with janggu’ beat.
CH: Why use boxing as the fight style it is based on, and not a Korean martial art like Taekwondo?
JHK: As I said earlier, My Punch-Drunk Boxer started from a joke by chance rather than with a special meaning. Nevertheless, the combination of more Korean janggu beat and Western boxing was very interesting.
I personally agree with the influence of African-American culture on Korean popular culture. I set George Foreman as Byung-gu’s role model because Foreman won the champion at the age of 42 after coming back from retirement.
CH: The way pansori boxing is a combination of traditional South Korean and American, were you inspired by SamulNori, in creating it? And if so, did you speak with any of the musicians about their practice of combining the traditional sounds with international genres like jazz?
JHK: Janggu is one of the instruments for SamulNori. To be clear, the instrument used for pansori is buk, but I chose janggu because of its more cheerful/rhythmical sound.
I got a lot of help from various people including the music director Jang Yeong-gyu and janggu instructor Park Da-yeol. I chose janggu beats for pansori boxing with help of them and while doing so, I got to experience pansori and various Korean traditional beats. I made the boxing movements according to the janggu beats with the action director Yi Sang-ha and the hero Um Tae-goo.
CH: Was there anything that changed from your original concept throughout filming?
JHK: There were more comic elements in the initial plan. I wanted to make a unique film like “My Punch-Drunk Boxer” by putting unconventional edit rhythms like Pansori boxing and comic elements as well as bringing the form of classic film under the theme of ‘things being gone and forgotten.’
I wanted to make the movie with a lot more sense of humor, but I regret that I couldn’t because of the pressure of making the first full-length film.
CH: As I was watching Byung-gu demonstrate pansori boxing, the movements and rhythm made me think more of Brazilian capoeira, and various Caribbean music such as calypso from Barbados – where I’m from. Have you ever heard something similar from other people?
JHK: I remember music director Jang Yeong-gyu showing me this YouTube clip about someone boxing with salsa music after watching our film the movie with pansori boxing. I think that boxing is something players use their own rhythmical sense with, and they can do with various music according to respective circumstances. The gym I went to while writing the scenario taught boxing with very upbeat dance music.
I personally had a close look at this boxer called Emanuel Augustus. He is nicknamed ‘Drunken Boxer’ and he shows unique rhythmic sense and movements like a drunk person. I referred to his movements for some of Byung-gu’s last movements. I agree that we can understand each other beyond language through music. However, the line “What’s most universal, is Korean” was used more as a comic element. This was the slogan used by Korean government in the early 1990s to spread Korean culture worldwide and I put this line for satire.
CH: One of the subplots of My Punch-Drunk Boxer, is Byung Gu’s CTE diagnosis. Was there ever a time during the development of the script when you considered making the diagnosis something different? I ask because some of the symptoms are similar to other neurological conditions like Multiple Sclerosis.
JHK: The punch-drunk syndrome started during Byung-gu’s career as a boxer. There are many symptoms of punch drunk (which happens because of accumulated shocks to the brain caused by boxing) and I focused on dementia. I thought dementia was the best in depicting Byung-gu as he is in the center of the story of memory loss, and loss in general. I wanted to portray hand tremors, inarticulateness, and memory confusion through punch-drunk.
CH: During the research process did you, your co-writer Cho Hyun-chul, or the cast ever speak with athletes and or non-athletes who have physical or neurological disabilities?
JHK: It’s my personal story, but my grandmother and maternal grandfather experienced dementia during their last years. These personal stories were reflected in the scenario.
When I was interviewing the boxers while writing the scenario, I found that a lot of boxers were doing matches hiding their injuries. The setting that Byung-gu had a knee injury was added after interviewing the real boxers.
CH: Do you see the film as a way of generating discussion about how people with disabilities (visible and invisible) are treated in society?
JHK: I tried to approach very carefully as the movie has a main character who experiences punch-drunk syndrome. There are comic elements, but I put effort to not ridicule or make a caricature of those who have punch-drunk or dementia.
My Punch-Drunk Boxer isn’t a movie centered on the rights of people of disability, but I hope there would be more attention to those who experience similar issues, through this movie.
CH: I compared the editing and cinematography of the film, to what it is like living with a neurological disease that affects cognitive functions, in how the memory and perception changes or is perceived. Was this the intent?
JHK: You got it right. Reminiscence scenes in the movie appear and disappears out of blue like Byung-gu’s memory. The reminiscence occurs following Byung-gu’s emotion throughout the movie without any preparation or signal. I wanted the audience to be integrated into Byung-gu through this editing technique so that they would feel like Byung-gu in real life.
CH: I have MS, and as someone with living with physical and cognitive disabilities and a disease that will develop over time – much like CTE – I appreciated how Um Tae-goo and your direction of his performance never felt like he was performing based solely on what he thought the condition was manifest as physically. I felt like he took the time to understand the emotional, and mental toll as well. What kind of discussions did you have to make sure this was how the character would be received by audiences?
JHK: I had a lot of talk with the actor Um Tae-goo during the pre-production period. Rather than asking a detailed acting, as a director, I explained broader emotional spectrum according to the flow of movie and wanted the actor to fill the detail on his own. I intervened only when he was not on the overall emotional spectrum instead of asking a detailed acting for every scene. I directed the same way for Kim Hee-won (who acted Coach Park) and Lee Hye-ri (who acted Minji).
I personally think that the character in the movie imagined by myself sitting in front of table can’t be the same as the one acted by real actors, so I prefer to have the actors understand and recreate the characters on their own.
CH: You’ve worked with actor Um Tae-goo before, was there anything new you learned about yourself as a director, and him as an actor during the pre-production or filming?
JHK: I felt that he puts in a lot of effort. He actually never learned boxing properly. He only had 2-3 months to learn because of short pre-production period. It was very a short time to learn properly but he was like a real boxer when filming.
CH: Comment: I love the character of Min-ji. She’s accepting of Byung-gu and never makes him feel different to other people. It was important to see someone be in his corner, when so many other characters doubted and belittled him, even ones who knew him for years. In casting Lee Hye-ri what was it that stood out to you that made her the perfect person to as Min-ji? Did she already have experience playing the pansori drum?
JHK: I really like the character Min-ji too. Pansori is composed of soriggun who does chang – singing the lyrics – and gosu who supports jangdan (beat/rhythm). There is a saying gosu is number one and soriggun is number two. This means that gosu who supports the beat is more important than soriggun. Byung-gu is a soriggun as he does pansori boxing and Min-ji is gosu who supports right next to him.
One cannot do pansori boxing by themselves. It can be done only when Byung-gu and Minji are together. When Byung-gu wasn’t able to go back to boxing because of Coach Park, Min-ji gives him courage. Similarly, Byung-gu supports Min-ji when she is thinking about her future. I wrote the scenario thinking Byung-gu and Minji are the ones who fill each other’s lives.
I really liked Hye-ri’s positive energy when I first met her. I thought her positive energy would make My Punch-Drunk Boxer lighter and more positive. She also didn’t know how to play janggu and she learned for the movie. She did a lot of work during the pre-production.
Looking back, I realize that all the actors put in a lot of effort. Actors Choi Jun-yeong (who played Gyo-hwan) and Lee Seol (who played Ji-yeon) also learned boxing and janggu for this movie.
CH: Do you ever see pansori boxing becoming an art form that exists outside of the film? Has there been any interest in it?
I saw some people playing boxing with pansori after the premiere, but I don’t know if it could be done in a real match. We can’t really play janggu beats for the match, right? Pansori boxing doesn’t just happen with boxing according to pansori. We all have our own rhythm and dream inside ourselves.
Translation by Junsoo Kim.
I am a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), my published work can be found on ButWhyThoPodcast, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, I believe my personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate, and help them to see things in a new light.
I am the proud host of Beyond The Romance Drama Podcast – a podcast dedicated to discussing Korean and other Asian dramas, the co-host of So Here’s What Happened! Podcast (@SHWH_Pod), and the weekly science fiction film and TV live tweet event #SaturdayNightSciFi.