1 of 5 | "Gensan Punch" features a cast of real-life boxers and fight scenes that were unchoreographed. Photo courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
BUSAN, South Korea, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's Gensan Punch, in competition at the 26th Busan International Film Festival, is based on the true story of a Japanese boxer with a prosthetic leg who dreams of turning professional.
Boxer Nao Tsuyama, played by Japanese actor Shogen (Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, Death Note) had his leg partially amputated as the result of a childhood accident, but he's managed to become an accomplished fighter.
He runs into a battle he can't win, however, when Japan's unyielding boxing commission refuses to grant him a license because of his disability.
Nao doesn't give up, decamping to the Philippines to continue training and pursue a license there. He lands in General Santos -- aka GenSan -- a ramshackle port city known for its boxing gyms and its hometown hero, legendary champion Manny Pacquiao.
Gensan Punch was a passion project for model-actor Shogen, who began to develope the film after meeting the real-life inspiration for the story, boxer Naozumi Tsuchiyama, in Tokyo.
"I was so inspired by what [Tsuchiyama] did, how he never gave up," Shogen told UPI at the Busan festival. "He was very shy to talk about himself, but gradually we became closer, and one day I asked if I could bring his story to film."
The two bonded over shared experiences, including being raised by single mothers, Shogen said. The actor also had his own run-in with Japan's conservative entertainment culture, being told when starting out that didn't look "Japanese enough" to pursue a career on screen.
"A producer told me, 'There's no role for you in Japan,'" Shogen said, leading him to turn overseas for opportunities.
Gensan Punch is a departure in subject matter for Mendoza, but it retains elements of the gritty, documentary style that has brought the Filipino auteur international acclaim, including a Best Director nod at Cannes in 2007 for his film Kinatay.
Mendoza's restless camera captures Nao's early disorientation on the chaotic streets and crumbling gyms of General Santos. His first encounter with his new coach, Rudy (Ronnie Lazaro), finds the older former champion trying to start a drunken brawl on a dock.
Much of the film takes place inside the ring, in which extended boxing sequences have an unnerving realism far removed from the stylized ballet often seen in action films.
"The fights weren't choreographed," said Shogen, who trained for several months ahead of shooting. "It was scary sometimes because my opponents were real boxers. Usually, you don't hit each other in a film, but Brillante said: 'Really hit -- not too strong, but really hit.'"
The film's dramatic scenes were also captured in a loosely structured way, with actors often receiving their lines just ahead of the day's filming to capture an unrehearsed feel.
Shogen said he worked closely with Mendoza to create and inhabit the character of Nao, drawing on his own experiences as well as the boxer's story.
"[Mendoza and I] shared a lot together to create trust," the actor said. "We created a relationship and I became so immersed in the character that I could go in and be raw and spontaneous."
The film's appearance at Busan brings the story full circle -- it was at the festival three years ago that Shogen first met Mendoza and pitched the story to him.
He followed up with the director at a film festival in Tokyo and then flew to the Philippines before Mendoza finally agreed to sign on to the project.
"I think it was meant to happen, bringing this film to Busan for its world premiere," Shogen said.
Gensan Punch is competing against among six other Asian films for the Kim Jiseok prize at Busan. It will travel to the Tokyo International Film Festival next month before landing with HBO Asia, where it will stream on the network's HBO Go platform in 2022.
The two winners of the Kim Jiseok Award will be announced at the closing ceremony of the 26th Busan International Film Festival on Friday.