Gensan Punch (Philippines/Japan, 2021)
Let me cut to the chase, Gensan Punch is Brillante Mendoza’s best work to date. It seems that years of practicing an interrogative approach to realism has honed Mendoza’s style and lead him towards the moment to shoot a boxing match. And the best thing about this movie is that it does not pretend to be anything more than a boxing film, and in fact, prides itself on it. This kind of confidence makes the film so enjoyable and fulfilling that its isn’t lacking in any respect.
Inspired by a true story, Gensan Punch follows Nao (Okinawan actor Shogen), a Japanese boxer with a prosthetic leg. He attempts to apply for a professional license in Japan but was declined as the commission did not see any guarantee of safety considering his condition. Desperate to pursue his dream and drawing inspiration from the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, he takes a trip to General Santos City, South Cotabato in the Philippines to train under Coach Rudy (veteran Filipino actor Ronnie Lazaro) who was a former world champion. During their training, what seems to matter for Coach Rudy is building up Nao’s confidence to stand in the ring once more.
In contrast to most of Mendoza’s films, Gensan Punch is brimming with confidence that comes from the pride that it seems to take from the very place of General Santos City itself, where the origins of such world-renowned boxers as Pacquio, Nonito Donaire, Jr., Rolando Navarrete and Marvin Sonsona can be traced. Through his interrogative filmic approach, Mendoza captures the city as a prideful place where warriors train and where everybody witnesses the birth of future champions.
Mendoza’s interrogative realism transitions towards an immersive experience where his camera’s gaze shifts from being the fly-on-the-wall to being Nao’s most intimate training partner. The main event is, of course, the boxing matches. Shifts between camera’s distance and intimacy bring quite novel approach to Gensan Punch: while most boxing movies tend to focus more on punches and facial expressions, Mendoza’s interrogative realism instead captures the very toll that boxing does to the body. With Nao’s condition in consideration, the focus of the film makes a point that foot and legwork are just as important as the punches being thrown. Nao’s condition makes us worried about his leg, with the camera making sure that this worry is reinforced by focusing on the shifts of movement and the dances of the two boxers in the middle of the ring. It makes us see the toll that the fight has brought to Nao’s legs.
This approach is more reminiscent of Maya Deren’s Meditation on Violence (1948) than other boxing films. Both works centers on the body. In Deren’s work, the body serves as the site of conceptual interrogation. In Gensan Punch, the body serves as the very site of conflict and conflict resolution. The stress in Nao’s legs as he dances in the ring brought a sensibility that highlights the challenge that is presented to Nao and his determination to overcome it. The peak of the movie, Nao’s last boxing match, is the culmination of Mendoza’s masterwork: the violent roughness in texture that’s present in his earlier works Kinatay (2009) and Ma Rosa (2016) was supplemented with the aesthetic gracefulness found in his Lola (2009) and Thy Womb (2016) to expose Nao’s struggle in the equally violent and graceful world of boxing.
Gensan Punch is raw, intense, and on the edge, while at the same time, immersive and meditative. Mendoza may have just brought us a fresh take on the boxing movie film by finding a home for a balance between the roughness and finesse of his own aesthetic with an unexpected genre. The one thing that Mendoza may not be able to escape from is how this film is presenting itself in the context of the upcoming presidential elections where boxing legend Manny Pacquiao is running for the office. But perhaps this is also one of the reasons why this work is extremely important as part of Mendoza’s oeuvre. In as much as Gensan Punch shows that Mendoza’s Best Director nod from Cannes Film Festival years ago is not a fluke, the film also exposes Mendoza’s skill as a master propagandist, placing him beside Philippine cinema’s greats from Gerardo de Leon to Lino Brocka.
Gensan Punch will be released as an HBO Original Film on December 16 at HBO GO.