A disgraced, terminally ill boxer meets a girl and strives to return to the ring for a final bout. That may sound like a familiar inspirational sports melodrama formula, but writer-director Jung Hyuk Gi's My Punch-Drunk Boxer
adds an offbeat tone and an unexpected musical element into the midst – pansori.
Pansori is a traditional form of musical storytelling that is performed by a singer and a drummer. Im Kwon Taek famously depicted this Korean folk art form in his films Sopyonje and Beyond the Years. Bringing together two unlikely worlds, My Punch-Drunk Boxer introduces the curious concept of "pansori boxing." Protagonist Byeong Goo (Um Tae Goo) used to train by shadowboxing to the rhythm of the pansori drum played by his girlfriend. The two shared a dream of excelling in pansori and boxing, but mistakes and tragedies cut their dreams short.
When we meet Byeong Goo, he is a glumly awkward 29-year-old who has been diagnosed with CTE. With the neurodegenerative disease advancing quickly and his days numbered, he meets the cute and perky Min Ji (Hye Ri) at the boxing gym he works at. Supported by Min Ji and his coach (Kim Hee Won), Byeong Goo picks up pansori boxing again and aims for a comeback, no matter the risks.
My Punch-Drunk Boxer was expanded from a short that director Jung Hyuk Ki shot in college as his graduation film. Both melancholic and uplifting, the feature film version very much retains a quirky indie vibe, and Um Tae Goo creates a distinct presence as the oddball hero. Whispering out lines in his unmistakable scratchy voice, the actor manages to appear physically intimidating yet bashfully awkward.
The most striking part of My Punch-Drunk Boxer though is the way pansori is organically integrated into the film. Besides the drumming in the story, there is also occasional pansori narration that acts as rousing background music and voice-over storytelling. Presenting its unconventional idea in unassuming manner, My Punch-Drunk Boxer certainly has me convinced that pansori boxing would make a great training regimen and performance art.