In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) – ★★★☆☆

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Based on the popular web cartoon by Lee Jong-gyu and Lee Yoon-gyun, Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) is the latest offering from prolific film-maker Kang Woo-seok (강우석). The premise is a simple one; three middle-aged men who were friends in high school find themselves down on their luck and, tempted by the prize money offered by a TV fighting show, find themselves reunited in the ring. As such the film evokes a Rocky Balboa/Warrior sensibility, with a dash of classic Korean gangster film Friend (친구) thrown in for good measure. Yet Fists of Legend never gets anywhere close to the quality of what inspired it, with a cliched and hackneyed narrative, awful TV drama-esque acting, and complete mis-use of the principal cast, while the overly-long running time adds further tedium. Luckily veteran actor Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is on hand to elevate the film out of monotony, alongside the interesting flashback sequences. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Fists of Legend is a big disappointment, and beneath all of the lead actors involved.

Tough, cynical producer Hong Gyu-min (Lee Yo-won (이요원) presides over a TV show which pits middle-aged men – who were ‘legendary fighters’ back in their youth – against each other in a mixed martial arts ring for entertainment. After receiving a tip-off, Gyu-min tracks down gentle noodle restaurant owner Im Deok-gyu (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), who was known as a talented boxer in his youth. In need of money following an incident involving his daughter, Deok-gyu reluctantly agrees to fight and surprises everyone when he emerges victorious. However his winning streak starts a series of events that sees former friends and rivals in the form of salaryman Lee Sang-hoon (Yoo Jun-sang (유준상) and gangster Shin Jae-seok (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문) enter the tournament, while the unearthing of his checkered past brings difficulty for Deok-gyu and his family.

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer's challenge

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer’s challenge

Fists of Legend begins well as it gloriously parodies middle-aged masculinity, featuring high-octane action sequences of svelte teenage fighters who give way to their chubby older counterparts battling on TV. The subversion of the action genre is highly entertaining as the fighters, described as teenage legends, are publicly beaten and humiliated as they attempt to prove their manliness. The comedy derived from such sequences is a fun way to introduce the concept of the show, and sets up the narrative well for the introduction of the central protagonists. Yet the film falters almost immediately in doing so as Lee Yo-won ridiculously overacts as producer Hong Gyu-min, spouting clunky dialogue about her resilience and tenacity as well as what constitutes a ‘real man’ in the attempt to recruit Deok-gyu for the show. Deok-gyu is, for all intents and purposes, the Korean Rocky Balboa; not particularly bright yet kind-hearted, widowed, and with a precocious child, the aged fighter is down-on-his-luck in every respect. Actor Hwang Jeong-min injects real heart into the role, squeezing every nuance he can muster from the character to generate sincere charisma and likability. His quality is such that whenever he comes into contact with other characters the result is often cringe-inducing, as the overacting by the supporting cast – especially Lee Yo-won and Deok-gyu’s daughter – appears even worse next to Hwang’s calm and mediated approach. Indeed, it is largely due to Hwang that Fists of Legend is engaging at all, as the journey he undertakes in which he is forced to reevaluate his past is compelling as well as adding depth to Deok-gyu’s predicament.

In order to fully articulate such self-reflection, director Kang repeatedly whisks the audience back to Deok-gyu’s past to convey how he and his friends came together. The veteran director crafts the drama well, so much so that he appears to be more invested in the flashbacks than the current crises as so much of the running time is focused on the formative years that the impetus of the fighting tournament is almost lost. Experiencing the developing friendship between Deok-gyu and his friends, as well as their eventual parting of ways, are some of the genuine highlights of the film yet the sequences feel at odds with those in the present. It’s as if two screenplays are being forced to coalesce but only partly manage to do so, and the result is a film that is at least 30 minutes too long. Furthermore, as the pace in the modern era falters in the second act, contrived features are added to the past in the attempt to flesh out relationships and dramatic tension for the fights in the present, but ultimately feel tacked on.

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

With such a large focus on Deok-gyu, it’s easy to forget that his two former best friends are also in the tournament. The lack of characterisation – on the adult counterparts at least – is a genuine shame as actors Yoo Jun-sang and Yoon Je-moon are highly competent performers, yet they are given such slight material to work with that they barely register throughout the film. This also serves to remove any kind of dramatic tension for the battles between them which is disappointing given that the hype generated for the contest of champions is enormous, yet they ultimately have little legitimate reasoning for wanting to fight each other. The tournaments are anticlimactic for a number of reasons, notably for director Kang’s limitations when filming action. Aside from one shot, in which the camera rolls with the fighters during a takedown, the action is bland and uninspired while the notion that these middle-aged men could somehow become mixed martial arts specialists almost overnight is just silly. The cliches that enter the film during the fight sequences, such as rousing music when a character becomes angry, are reminiscent of 1980s action films yet without the self-reflexive tongue-in-cheek attitude to make them work, and become laughable as a result. The inclusion of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ compounds the film’s 80s sensibilities further but it just serves to remind the audience of the superior Rocky series of films instead. Yet despite such criticisms, Deok-gyu’s bouts are compelling due to Hwang’s performance, and there’s always something cathartic about an underdog rising up against insurmountable odds.

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Verdict:

Fists of Legend, by veteran director Kang Woo-seok, is an odd action film that attempts to combine the themes within Rocky, Warrior and Korean classic Friend, in depicting a fighting tournament for middle-aged men. Yet with clunky dialogue, awful over-acting and an overly-long running time the film doesn’t achieve anything near the films from which it takes inspiration. Luckily Hwang Jeong-min’s performance is the saving grace of Fists of Legend, and his underdog story gives the film the compulsion it so sorely requires.

★★★☆☆

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Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해) – ★★★★☆

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

The voices of young women are often ignored in mainstream cinema. Those that do appear tend to focus on frivolity, particularly consumerism where the characters purchase the latest fashions often in the attempt to catch the attention of a love interest. Such latent sexism is wonderfully rejected in director Jeong Jae-eun’s (정재은) indie drama Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해), a refreshing drama about five friends who increasingly grow apart after high school. The film had a very successful festival run following its debut at the 2001 Busan International Film Festival, appearing at Berlin and Rotterdam amongst others, and launched the careers of the principal cast, notably Bae Doo-na who went on to star in several high profile productions such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hollywood movie Cloud Atlas.

Following graduation from high school, five friends from the port city of Incheon who were previously extremely close begin to drift apart. Shin Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won (이요원) lives in Seoul working hard to achieve a career, becoming driven by appearance and success. Yoo Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na (배두나) works for her father’s business for free, struggling to find her own identity and ambitions. Seo Ji-young (Ok Ji-yeong (옥지영) is an aspiring textile artist, yet her poverty-stricken lifestyle has left her with little prospects. Finally, twins On-jo (Lee Eun-Ju (이은주) and Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-Sil (이은실) simply attempt to get by, making cheap jewelry to be sold at market. As Tae-hee works hard to keep the bonds of friendship strong, events occur that profoundly change the young women and take them all in different directions resulting in the passing of a pet cat between them.

The friends reunite for Hae-joo's 20th birthday

The friends reunite for Hae-joo’s 20th birthday

Take Care of My Cat is an intelligent character-driven film, one that eschews the trappings of melodramatic story-lines so often ascribed to women’s roles in cinema. Director Jeong, who also takes writing duties, instead opts for more realism, conveying the struggles of young women fresh from high school, struggling to succeed in the highly competitive society. With each protagonist director Jeong highlights and interrogates particular features of Korean culture, balancing the social critique between them while simultaneously conveying how such forces shape them into different women. Hae-joo – wonderfully brought to life by actress Lee Yo-won – must contend with the extreme diligence of the employment sector in Seoul, constantly striving to be ‘better’ and prompting an arrogance and selfishness her friends are unaccustomed to. Meanwhile Tae-hee is forced to endure the misogyny within Korean culture as exemplified by her father who passes tips on how to be a ‘real man’ to his son. With Ji-young, her poverty forces limitations on her creativity and forces her outside the margins of society. In each case, director Jeong explores the notions of female identity and its construction with skill and insight, organically debating them within the narrative as the quintet of friends observe the change the personalities and the distance generated amongst them.

In this regard it is Tae-hee who, as the central figure who arranges meetings, becomes the heart of the film and the window through whom the audience identifies most. As Tae-hee attempts to bring the group closer it becomes clear she’s fighting an uphill battle, and her observances reflect the audience’s own. Bae Doona brings a wonderful and nature grace to the role, both endearing and sincere, conveying a young woman yearning for identity and ambition that always seem just out of reach. She is the person with whom young people can relate the most, someone who wants independence and individuality yet is trapped by the culture that surrounds her.

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

The titular cat also functions as pertinent and insightful metaphor for female identity. As director Jeong has often stated in interviews, cats are fussy and independent, don’t listen, and leave home whenever they wish. As the cat is passed between the friends it becomes symbolic in inspiring the owner to yearn for more, to become increasingly frustrated with her existence as it stands. As Koreans are traditionally uneasy with cats, the director seems to be suggesting that Korean culture struggles with the notion of female identity and independence. Director Jeong emphasises such traits through each of the protagonists, especially Tae-hee and Ji-young by exploring their unhappiness and desire for change. The narrative is quite unbalanced in regards to twins On-jo and Bi-ryu however, and their inclusion is underdeveloped and arguably unnecessary. They serve little function throughout, except to sell cheap home-made accessories to other women, again tying into the debate of physical attractiveness women are expected to partake in.

Yet Take Care of My Cat is not all deep metaphor and social debate, as the film makes effective use of lighting techniques, an otherworldly electronic soundtrack, and text messaging/typing graphics to give the film a distinctly ‘cool’ edge. These features combine incredibly well and lend the film something of a ‘cult’ vibe, and has clearly served as an inspiration to later films who have employed such techniques.

Ji-young's poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Ji-young’s poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Verdict:

Take Care of My Cat is a wonderfully charismatic film that provides young women with a voice that’s sorely lacking in contemporary cinema. By eschewing notions of consumerism and melodrama, writer/director Jeong Jae-eun instead focuses on female identity and its construction with skill and insight. Furthermore the electronic soundtrack, amongst other techniques, make it something of a cult film, as well as an intelligent, profound offering in the debate of womanhood in modern Korean society.

★★★★☆

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