If you’re into films with actors making their debuts, and if you especially enjoy sports dramas, Jéro Yun’s Fighter may just be more your speed. I’m not at all sure what the casting process was here, but it was awesome being introduced to actress Lim Seong-mi in her first lead role and absolutely killing it, and the ceremony she’s been receiving ever since.
Starring as a “North Korean Refugee” makes for even more interesting cinema, especially given the ongoing state of the region and its dichotomy. Seeing how Lim absorbs the character with utmost consumption as she embarks on her character’s journey, firstly with a voice over narration about how South Korean would describe her – hence the quotations above.
An ex-soldier and refugee settling into her new place just a few months after attending a re-education center, Jina Ree’s main focus, per her broker, is to concentrate on making enough money to send for her father’s arrival from China. As she stays on the hustle, her insistence on a second job finds her at doing janitorial work at a boxing gym where, undoubtedly, she’s quietly drawn to the sport.
Try as she may to not look so obvious, it’s a secret she can’t keep from the gym’s Coach (Oh Kwang-rok) and his assistant, Tae-soo (Baek Seo-bin), and after a little goading from some of the gym’s regulars, Jina finally puts on the gloves for a short sparring match that more than proves she’s ready for what lies ahead. It’s a boost she definitely needs too, considering the discrimination and harassment she faces from a few of the locals.
The only other real grievance after that is trying to move forward with the family she lost touch with since the age of 12. Having internalized her pain and loneliness, Jina is usually quiet and stoic, and even a little terse as they come. And that’s just it – beyond anything she has the potential to achieve in the ring, Jina’s biggest fight lies outside the ring with the people who will soon begin to matter most in her life.
I saw a few reactions to this film prasing most of the story but passing on some of its other elements. I didn’t mind a single thing that this film had to offer, and mainly out of my own adoration for Lim’s performance. It lends a rare window into the kind of identity crises that folks such as North Korean émigrés deal with in terms of finding their own identities, particularly in a neighboring region where just about everything feels like a mirror image of what used to be.
Jina is very hardworking, and even harder on herself due to her own pre-existing cultivation as a Northerner. Her absorption into some semblance of normalcy and human resolve at times is eventually carried over with the help of Tae-soo. Head over heels in love and always the gentleman, you’ll have to watch the film all the way through to find out if Tae-soo’s efforts at charming Jina pay off or not. These films are usually no stranger to bittersweet (if not sad) endings, anyway.
The boxing and training scenes were fun to watch too. Lim had short of two months to prepare for the role, training for more than two hours a day according to reports. You can definitely see the work she’s put in, and it also helps that Yun’s documentary style of cinematography doesn’t really get in the way of the boxing sequences. There’s at least one or two close-ups where speed ramping is involved, but it’s only to show contact for dramatic effect.
One thing Fighter isn’t is a Rocky rehash of any kind. It’s a family drama with a focus on generational suffering, healing, forgiveness, and the will to endure. It’s a beautiful story with a compelling conceptual and visual aesthetic, with a first time lead actress Lim Seong-mi delivering a solid feature performance that sees it all through.
Fighter is screening for the 2021 hybrid installment of NYAFF which runs from August 6 through 22.