Fighter is that rare film able to work within a typically male framework — here, the underdog boxing flick — and translate it to a powerful woman’s story, without really altering much of anything. Lim Sung-mi plays a North Korean who stumbles into amateur boxing after relocating to the South, and her performance as a defector feels genuinely authentic to the fictional transplant narrative. She’s likewise believable as a young boxer prone to self-destructive behavior: entirely unpredictable in her reactions, seeming anxious and withdrawn (for most of the film) despite her tough exterior, and temperamental to the point of snapping at random. Important, then, is that Jéro Yun’s film is not a stereotypical boxing film, nor is the role of Jin-ah just a male archetype grafted onto a female character. Lim understands that the character she is embodying is a girl whose particular traits relate to her social circumstances, rather than her sport: thrust into a new environment, Jin-ah’s internalization of others’ views of her often leads to behaviors that reinforce those very judgments.
The moment in the film that kick-starts this character development comes during Jin-ah’s first impromptu training session, when a compliment on her fighting skill is misinterpreted, by her, as a malicious preconception: “How come South Koreans only consider North Koreans as commandos,” she asks, “as if they are cold-blooded creatures only bred to kill people?” Her reaction is extreme, as we can tell from the face of her coworker, who obviously meant no harm. Jin-ah’s conclusion, though, is quite a somber one: “North Korea is also a place where ordinary people live.” The focus here is always on the sociopolitical — boxing mostly just constitutes the background of this refreshingly grounded defector (the subs refer to Jin-ah as a “refugee”) drama, and, in fact, there’s more excitement packed into one joyous amusement park sequence than there is into any of the boxing scenes. The legacy of separation is so woven into the subtext of South Korean cinema, though, that even without delving particularly deep into boxing, Fighter can still match the emotional scale and intensity of the genre’s more overtly political entries. Yun’s film also skirts those film’s favored form of catharsis: Jin-ah’s arc demonstrates the personal growth that she’s achieved, but still acknowledges that her own fight to define herself is far from over.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.