One hundred and twenty-seven years of boxing pictures, and a little indie film comes along and shows us the ring in ways we haven’t seen before.
“In Full Bloom” is a patient, simple post-war parable of fighters — cultures in collision, dreams and disappointment.
It’s set in Japan and is filled with beautiful images of a fighter training in a snowy Japanese winter, another reason I always say “I’ll watch anything set in Japan. Anything.” It traffics in more boxing film tropes than you can count. But it is the film’s dreamy “big fight” climax that sells it, light heavyweights going at it in a pool of light in a darkened arena, a blur of close-ups, slo-motion, the whooshing of wind and the gasps of exertion.
The fight has been set up to give Japan’s champion, Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara, making his film debut) another win as champ. The American Clint Sullivan (Tyler Wood, also a screen newcomer) has taken some losses, something the Japanese press pounces on at their joint press conference.
“Masahiro is a great warrior and an honorable man,” Clint says, tactfully and humbly, as if he knows the culture. Maybe he does. In flashbacks, we see Clint spent some time in uniform, fighting the Japanese with his Thompson submachine gun.
But it’s not long after World War II, and “The Hope of Japan” cannot let the home crowd down. That’s Masahiro went into the north, into the mountains to find the famed reclusive trainer Tokugawa (Hiroyuki Watanabe).
“Americans are like dogs,” the champ says (in Japanese with English subtitles). “All bark and no bite.”
The sage Tokugawa sets him straight. He makes the champ catch fish with his bare hands for reflex training, and spar in the snow, trying to land a blow on the wily old “master” as he does. He keeps slapping Masahiro in every exchange.
“The only way to kill a fighter’s pride,” the old man intones, “is with a good bitch slap!”
There’s a lot of “intoning” here, with much of the dialogue taking on a theatrical gravitas. Voice-over narration about the allegory of cherry blossoms — like life — short-lived and sweet, isn’t quite eye-rolling. But it comes close.
The Yakuza (Japanese mafia) have an interest in the fight. Clint has gnawing doubts and personal issues. Will he be up to the challenge of Masahiro’s unconventional training? Will the Yakuza accept anything other than a Masahiro victory?
“They won’t let you win,” Clint’s manager (S. Scott McCracken) informs him.
“Well it’s not up to them!”
The training sequences have the barest hint of novelty to them. But the fight, when the bell finally rings, is a fascinating exercise in watching first-time feature directors problem-solve, block, stage and light a fight, and serve up a fascinating “long count” hallucination, in ways we haven’t seen before.
They pull that off, and that goes for the movie, too. I’ll not oversell this here. It’s still a genre picture and hard-pressed to serve up much that’s fresh. But they find some interesting touches and make it work.
MPA Rating: unrated, bloody violence
Cast: Tyler Wood, Yusuke Ogasawara, Hiroyuki Watanabe, S. Scott McCracken
Credits: Scripted and directed by Reza Ghassemi, Adam VillaSenor. A Dozo release.
Running time: 1:29