Consider, for a moment, the epic patience of my husband. Here is a man who has countless times watched me peruse his formidable movie library full of overlooked classics and painstakingly selected foreign gems before I shrug my lazy shrug and load up old episodes of CSI or Law & Order:SVU. He allows himself the occasional snide comment, but never—NEVER—has he declared, I CANNOT LIVE UNDER THESE CONDITIONS SO HELP ME GOD and stormed out, which I think we can all agree would not be a wholly inappropriate response. Two days ago, he lit up like an honest-to-God Christmas tree when he realized I was in a Movie Watchin’ Mood and scurried around plucking out DVDs he knew I would particularly like. He handed me a case all in Korean with a close-up picture of two battered male faces. “You will LOVE this,” he said. He has said this of a number of films in the time we have known each other, and he has never been wrong.
“Eh,” I replied.
“Really,” he insisted. “It is beautiful.”
I examined the back of the case, which shows a shot of men boxing or something. “I don’t know if I like fighting movies.”
In order fully to appreciate D’s truly monastic levels of tolerance, you must understand that this man knows that until a few months ago, I refused to watch any of the Godfather trilogy because “I didn’t know if I liked gun shooting movies.” This was my actual position, despite my well-documented addiction to all manner of trashy TV crime dramas and my absolute devotion to The Wire. My husband, he does not give me a derisive look. He does not even sigh. He simply says, “You will like it. It is like Karate Kid but it will make you cry.” (“But”?) “I’ll just leave it right here.” Note that this is the same technique people use to get dogs to notice new toys they are too stupid to know are awesome yet. People do this because it works.
Crying Fist (dir. Seung-wan Ryoo, 2005) comprises two storylines set up like the proverbial Train A and Train B set on a collision course for Point C. Its two protagonists are inverse models of troubled masculinity: Train A is Yoo Sang-hwan, a juvenile delinquent who spites his father’s loving attempts at paternal guidance; Train B is Gang Tae-shik, a washed up former silver medalist in boxing who struggles unsuccessfully to support his family by inviting people on the street to beat him up. Yoo’s story is a typical Foucauldian allegory in which discipline is the only legitimate means of socialization and personal agency: frustrated youth must learn to direct his aggressive instincts in on himself in order to become a functional subject. Yoo’s early action sequences are wonderful spectacles of flailing kinetic energy. In one, he mugs an older man who’s rumored to be a money-lender, the only person who still carries loads of cash on his person in this age of credit.
It is not a competent mugging. They tumble around until the older man’s heart and strength give out, giving Yoo the chance to kick his inert body to make it feel real. Do you know that allegory about the two invalids in the hospital, one in a bed by the window who describes the beautiful outdoors every day to his windowless roommate? Eventually the roommate is overwhelmed by jealousy of his friend’s access to the outside world, and he murders him for his bed by the window; as soon as he installs himself there, he discovers that the window looks out on a bare brick wall. This scene is a version of that. Yoo takes his victim’s wallet, imagining that is contains the piles of cash that, to his limited mind, epitomize wealth and power.
The wallet contains some bills, but nothing much. The look of fear on Yoo’s face marks his realization that power is not a thing out there for the taking, or that people are keeping from him; eventually he will come to understand that it is a thing that he must create by becoming more than “a temper and a fist.” Which, of course, he pursues through prison and boxing, in that order.
The more experienced Gang has gone from (near-)triumph to utter failure; he has surpassed self-discipline and arrived at self-humiliation.
Discovering that “he earns more when beaten more,” he desperately cashes in on his social abjection, inviting people to pay for the pleasure of beating him in a fight. He instructs them to think of him as the embodiment of all that is harassing and oppressing them, and he takes their abuse and their bills. It’s like the worst kind of reality TV as street performance, where the violence of the audience’s contempt is physical as well as virtual.
Finding a way toward personal integrity and social viability is, for Gang, a journey opposite Yoo’s. His fighting instinct is too self-directed; he already knows the boundaries that separate him from everyone else, but he needs to relearn how to protect them.
Ultimately, as they always do, the trains collide—in this case, in the finals ring of an amateur boxing contest. Each man has become man enough to fight the other. It is sweaty, bloody, intimate. But what’s really striking is how the finale confirms that the ultimate goal—the whole point of individual integrity—is social integration, specifically fulfilling one’s role in the family. Yoo and Gang do not simply need to learn to be better men; they need to be better men so they can be a better son and father, respectively. My gut instinct tells me that the American versions of this well-worn tale tend to privilege the individual triumph. The family is saved because women realize male champions are sexy, children realize their fathers are goddamn WINNERS. That’s not the case here, where the weeping women and children seem instead to have discovered that the men they love are just in there somewhere after all.
Blowup (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) isn’t the most logical follow-up to Crying Fist, but sick girls are not relied upon for the logic of their choices. It was simply next in the pile of movies D had gathered for me, and after the success of his first recommendation I decided to just watch them all. Blowup was Antonioni’s first English-language film, and it is all London swingers, candy colors, topless ladies.
Women just could not keep their clothes on in 60s London! Jane Birkin not only gets totally naked, she tears her girlfriend’s clothes off too! Our central male fashion photographer spends a lot of time rolling around with chicks in various states of undress, but never seems to get his pants off. I believe that’s because he’s too deep to be fully preoccupied with shenanigans—those are his thinking pants! His crisp, white thinking pants. And he has much to think about: while idly snapping shots in the park, he may have photographed a murder. This opens up all kinds of questions about what kind of truth the camera captures, aesthetic or empirical. Our photographer must blow up marginal details of his photos, stare at the blow-ups, blow them up again. This process involves whiskey and much machinery. This is not CSI, people! The “enhancements” are not enhancements at all; the more evidentiary the images become, the more they appear to be abstract paintings.
In this culture of people fully accustomed to making their own reality (“I thought you were in Paris,” the photographer says to a woman at a party; “I am in Paris,” she replies), this guy goes in search of a reality not of his own making—one observed rather than invented—and finds himself in a scary, liminal space in which the very status of the real is in limbo—by which I mean, of course, a mime tennis match.
So there you go. And now a bowl of matzo ball soup is calling my name, and that is one call you ALWAYS answer.