Prolific Filipino filmmaker Brillante Ma Mendoza (“Kinatay,” “Thy Womb”) steps into the boxing ring with the heartfelt if rather thin drama “Gensan Punch.” Inspired by the true story of Naozumi Tsuchiyama, an amputee who was denied a license to box professionally in Japan and traveled to the Philippines in pursuit of his dreams, “Gensan” lands solid punches for the rights of disabled athletes and excels with its depiction of rigorous training and fierce combat. But we learn very little about the fighter’s life when he’s not wearing gloves. Following its world premiere at Busan, where it shared the Kim Ji-seok Award with Aparna Sen’s “The Rapist”, and its November screening in Tokyo, “Gensan Punch” will launch online as an HBO Asia Original.
With his chiseled features and steely gaze, handsome model-turned-action star Shogen (“Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist”) certainly looks the part as Nao, a boxer from Okinawa who has been wearing a prosthetic leg since a childhood accident. His skill is undeniable, but according to Japanese officials, he fails “physical condition regulations” and is not permitted to fight professionally.
With his appealing combination of politeness and quiet determination Nao nods in acceptance and boards the next flight to Mindanao. His destination is the Gensan Punch gym in General Santos City, a rough-and-tumble place that has produced champions including slugger-turned politician Manny “PacMan” Pacquaio.
From the outside, Gensan Punch gym looks like a death-match auditorium from a post-nuke action thriller. On the inside, it’s a different story. Nice-guy owner Ben (Jun Nayra), his wife Mina (Evangeline Torcino) and their daughter Melissa (Beauty Gonzalez) run the place like a boarding house for well-mannered young men who want to better themselves as they hone their fighting skills. Nao’s prosthetic limb doesn’t bother anyone at Gensan Punch and makes no difference to local boxing officials. As long as Nao can win three fights in a row, he’ll earn professional status.
The heart of the film is Nao’s relationship with veteran trainer Rudy (Ronnie Lazaro), a scrappy-looking dude whose worn-out shoes are practically falling off his feet. But like everyone else at Gensan Punch, Rudy has a huge boxing heart and becomes Nao’s father figure. With most of the running time dedicated to training, mentoring and fighting, there’s little room for anything else. A couple of flashbacks to Nao’s childhood with his single mother (Kaho Minami) don’t add much. A brief sequence in which Nao seems to be making some sort of connection with Melissa has a very uncomfortable feel and would probably have best been left on the cutting room floor.
But the main game here is overcoming adversity and staying true to yourself through boxing. For Nao, that means a bad bust-up with Rudy after discovering his trainer has fixed a fight that will guarantee the license. Rudy’s heart might be in the right place — he’s just witnessed the death of young Gensan Punch student Bon Jovi (Vince Rillon) in the ring and is concerned for Nao’s safety — but the quietly spoken Nao is in no mind to corrupt his personal code of honor.
Mendoza’s fluid camera brings viewers into the ring and creates an intimate, documentary-like portrait of this tight-knit community of fighters, trainers and support staff. Footage of contests is vivid but never strays into “Raging Bull”-like territory of smashed faces and rivers of blood that often turn off non-boxing movie fans. A gentle, discreetly applied score by top Filipino composer Diwa de Leon serves as a soothing counterpoint to the bruising action.