MY PUNCH-DRUNK BOXER Director JUNG Hyuk-ki
Nov 09, 2019
- Writerby KIM Su-bin
“I wanted to tell a story on mutual gratitude.”
My Punch-Drunk Boxer was born from the sound of a janggu (a Korean traditional hourglass-shaped double-headed drum) heard by chance on a college campus. Actor CHO Hyun-chul, who was learning boxing back then, was in the midst of demonstrating a shadowboxing routine set to the beat of a janggu. JUNG Hyuk-ki thought it would be funny to turn that episode into a movie, and, together with CHO, he made the short film Dempseyroll: Confessions (2014), about the story of a ‘man who boxes in sync with the rhythmic patterns of pansori (Korea’s traditional form of musical storytelling, which is performed by a singer and a janggu player)’. This movie, with its strange tone that conjures simultaneously a lingering bitterness and a bursting joy, was expanded into the feature title My Punch-Drunk Boxer after it caught the eye of executive producer AHN Eun-mi. Today we sit down with Director JUNG Hyuk-ki to talk about his feature-length debut.
Your short movie Dempseyroll: Confessions received notice from the audience of major film festivals such as the Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival in 2014, and now, five years later, the feature film adaptation My Punch-Drunk Boxer is out in theaters.
Dempseyroll: Confessions was my graduation film at the Korea National University of Arts. I shot it in the summer of 2013. Once I graduated, I was living for a while as a production assistant, and in 2015, Pollux Pictures CEO AHN Eun-mi saw my movie and contacted me. She told me, “What about turning it into a feature-length film together?”, and from then on I worked on getting that feature project ready. I worked with CHO Hyun-chul on the script for about 6 months, and then I worked alone on it for a further 2 to 3 years, and after completing shooting and post-production, the film opened this year.
Did you have a feature film in mind right from when you were writing Dempseyroll: Confessions?
There was no opportunity to film it as a feature film. Back when I was working on my short, I was focused only on that work. But once the project was over, I thought how nice it would be if I could make the story a little bit longer. I graduated and pitched my scenarios here and there a little, and that’s when I expressed my desire to turn Dempseyroll: Confessions into a feature film. Everyone told me that would be difficult.
Has the script changed much since its first version?
Yes, it has. When Hyun-chul and I wrote it, the story was centered on the past rather than on the present. During the feature adaptation process, we opted to expand on the emotions and themes already present in the short version, rather than fleshing out the past events. We tried to include a profusion of emotions from the characters, instead of new incidents. A sense of ‘sorriness’ figures strongly in the short film, whereas for the feature version I wanted to tell a story about ‘thankfulness’. I also wanted to try to translate the distinctive rhythm of pansori into film well enough, considering that it is the topic of the film. That’s why we provided a sense of rhythm to the editing that seems offbeat, as we were cutting by one beat slower or faster than usual.
So you mean that the main character feels gratitude toward people in his entourage?
Right. In the short film, the characters helping Byeong-gu were not so present, but as we carried them over into the feature film, the characters of MIN Ji-na and Director PARK became more prominent. I think it is with the help of others that Byeong-gu continues (to perfect his pansori boxing skills). It’s not something he could do alone. And so, the characters around him have grown in importance. With the feature adaptation, I also wanted to convey a story that shows gratitude to what is disappearing and fading from our memory.
The story has several new characters. Was there any standard you set for the addition of new characters?
I was regularly visiting a boxing venue when I was writing the script. I noticed there that there are more people than I thought who take on boxing to lose weight. There were even boxers in a corner who would prepare for a game. As I was observing these people, I imagined them as characters and put them into the film. Our movie doesn’t really have any antagonist. If I were to name an obstacle to the main character, it would be something Byeong-gu did wrong all by himself, as well as time running out. The character named Kyo-hwan was put into the film to represent Byeong-gu’s mistake from the past coming back to haunt him.
The film also features pansori narration and music.
The main character in the short was shown practicing boxing to the rhythm of a janggu, but we couldn’t possibly call that ‘pansori boxing’ strictly speaking. In order to make more explicit the theme of ‘pansori boxing’, pansori was used as background music. What we designate as pansori is generally performed by both a singer and a drummer. The drummer is as important as the singer. I wanted to accentuate that sense of complementarity, since Byeong-gu doesn’t do pansori boxing alone but along with Min-ji. I also thought it would be better to communicate the particularities of pansori to the audience and therefore tell Byeong-gu’s situation and story arc in third person.
I heard you wrote yourself the lyrics of the pansori pieces.
Music director JANG Young-gyu played me some pansori stories that could work as reference, and the ‘Sugungga’ [One of the five original pansori stories that have survived to this day – Ed.] was the most fitting one. I then quoted a verse of the ‘Sugungga’ according to each scene. Changing the lyrics wasn’t easy. Master AHN I-ho has been singing for a long time, and so she is naturally comfortable with things like the vocabulary and meter of pansori. She received the lyrics and adapted them to fit the meter. I would send her what I made, she would try to sing it by herself and fixed it to make it sound better according to her taste. We worked together through conversations like that.
The inclusion of pansori makes the rhythm of the movie more perceptible. Comparing to your short, the depiction of the situations, also the characters, seem to be more cheerful in general.
Are we talking here of the comedic elements? The story is about marginalized people surrounded with difficulties, what with Byeong-gu being punch-drunk, Director PARK having to sell his gym, and Min-ji who doesn’t know what to do in the future. Despite all that, I wanted to portray the story in a light way, and so I added some comedic elements in the film.
What kind of stories or subjects usually attract you?
I’m leaning toward stories that have resonance, things that have a strong emotional echo. On the other hand, I’m also attracted to minor, B-grade material. When I was a child, I loved Stephen CHOW’s A Chinese Odyssey (1995) [A two-part Hong Kong film by Jeffrey LAU – Ed.]. I loved movies that may be B comedies but still have emotional resonance.