Naked and spectacular

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Punch (2022) Welby Ings, New Zealand -98m-

A young boxer in small town New Zealand trains hard under pressure from his alcoholic father and meets an unassimilated gay man living in a shack on the beach.

Tim Roth has top billing as an exhausted alcoholic with no energy left for anything in life apart from his son's boxing training, but his character definitely takes a backseat to the two distinctive and empathetic young men, played by Jordan Oosterhof and Conan Hayes. Oosterhof plays Jim, a boxer with a lean, muscular body and sensitive blue eyes, who passes in this shitty, uptight small town because he's an athlete and masculine. Hayes plays Whetu, who is a social reject from the start of the film; gay, out and Māori, with no known social connections. He is an artist and a sex worker and has carved a tiny world for himself in a beautifully decorated shack in the sand dunes of a big empty black-sand beach past a “no trespassing” sign.

The two characters are so vividly drawn and delicately performed that their coming together is real and meaningful, because we know why they reach for each other in such a place. Away from the highly constrictive social expectations of the town they have a little paradise in Whetu's shack, decorated with many odd artefacts found and created by him. It is through each of them seeking solitude in the wilderness of the beach that they meet, and it is here that they are able to spend time, nurture each other and find love.

The small town of Pīrau and the other characters that inhabit it are merely mise-en-scene for their relationship and the transformation it allows in each of them. It successfully colours in the background that contextualises their internal and external limitations and their expanding identities. A small town with no opportunities, a culture and people who are determined to aggressively limit each other. They are two young men who have allowed themselves to enjoy rich inner worlds, who have not been deadened by small town life and of course will inevitably escape.

Their first encounter is when Jim, passing with his straight mates, drive past Whetu and call out “faggot”. Whetu is already known as an outsider, but at that moment Jim is curious enough to turn around for another look. Their first meeting is on the beach. Jim often goes out there to train and this time, believing he is alone, he gets naked and runs through the dunes and the surf. Whetu is hanging out with his little dog and Jim is embarrassed and instinctively defensive. They tell each other to fuck off and Whetu shouts, “This is Māori land!” This remote empty beach is clearly a sanctuary of safety and self-expression for each of them, and they have invaded each other's space. Their next meeting, Whetu is weaving flax in the dunes when Jim gets stung by a jellyfish and screams for help. Whetu takes him to his little shack hidden in the dunes on a stream bed, pulls out the tentacles and rinses his stings with vinegar. Jim is very impressed with the tranquillity of the place and the care put into each of the strange objects that decorate it. To Whetu's surprise, Jim returns the next day and they discover a place of mutual sanctuary where they can connect away from the expectations and derision of the town.

This is the first feature film from Welby Ings, who has made various shorts. The two characters here are clearly enriched by the protagonists in his short films Sparrow (2016) and Boy (2004). Sparrow is about a sensitive and isolated boy, who wants to fly and never takes off his home-made wings, coming to terms with the macho images he's expected to live up to. Jim tells Whetu about how when he was a child he used to come to the dunes with his wings and try to fly. We briefly observe a spiritual trace of them discarded in the sand as Jim rediscovers his open-heartedness with Whetu. The protagonist of Boy is an isolated teenager who is scorned by the town, a sex worker who picks up men in the public toilet and who has a sanctuary in an abandoned warehouse where he creates strange and beautiful doll sculptures. Whetu is a sex worker who makes no effort to fit into the roles this small-minded town finds acceptable and who instead creates a solo world for himself with strange, beautiful sculptures. Having seen these shorts, both of which can be streamed for free, the lives of these characters are real outside of the events and timeline of the present film. Though they encounter each other at this pertinent moment when they're both ready for change, they have pasts that can only be hinted at, inner worlds that they can only attempt to express to each other, and futures outside of Pīrau in which they will create something totally different of themselves. We get a joyous and moving glimpse of this future at the end.

These shorts were also poetic in the sense that they didn't really work on a narrative level and though they hinted at the beautiful inner worlds of these strange isolated boys they remained somewhat unsatisfying. In Punch he has created a more conventional narrative film with satisfying character arcs, but retained the delicate, poetic hinting at rich inner worlds; Whetu drinking wine from a china teacup; Jim running naked through the dunes. The narrative takes breaks into moments of subjectivity, some beautiful imagery and a little too much use of distorting lenses. The gentle pacing of the protagonists discovering each other was engaging, though the ending was unfortunately abrupt and unresolved.

It is typical to cast pretty actors to play romantic leads, but here we find characters who we love because they are beautiful as complete humans. The love story refreshingly has nothing to do with perpetuating the romantic myth or attaining the higher state of a monogamous committed relationship. These two characters, so coherently woven into the world of this moving film, are merely two people who take the opportunity to open their hearts to each other before moving on with their lives.

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