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New Zealand drama blends boxing with gay romance, in a story that hits viewers right in the face - from the First Feature Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


There’s something about boxing that has always been a source of fascination for cinema. Even before Rocky Balboa ran up those steps, the idea of a fighting opponents in and out of the ring has been the framework for many a famous movie moment. With this in mind, it’s a credit to New Zealand director Welby Ings that his new film Punch should have so much that feels fresh.

Jordan Oosterhof plays Jim, a popular lad in a small town with a promising career in boxing. He’s coached by his father, Stan (Tim Roth), whose demons prevent him from ever truly becoming the father he wishes to be. One day, Jim meets Whetu (Conan Hayes), a young gay man who embraces his status among the town as an outsider, living in a self-built cabin. The pair fall in love, but the connection proves perilous for Jim, as the attraction of a new romance comes at the risk of his career and family.

Ings captures the sense of place beautifully, making the fictional town a character in its own right that provides the drama with stunning backdrops. The insular nature of small communities is also well-portrayed, with anything that threatens to deviate from the norm treated with derision. While the visuals are impressive, the plot is somewhat familiar. Many LGBTQ+ dramas feature clandestine affairs and the tension that builds from keeping their secret safe. In this sense, Punch doesn’t add too much, particularly with dialogue that can often telegraph the characters’ feelings.

Luckily, the stars bring something to the material. With bright eyes and a sincere demeanour, Oosterhof easily draws empathy as a man reaching that moment where happiness and safety diverge. He has a wonderful chemistry with Hayes, who avoids the standard tropes of out gay characters on film and presents Whetu as an individual rather than an archetype. Adding star power to proceedings, Roth’s stooped, grizzled manner is enough to establish Stan without saying a word, with the duality of his feelings for Jim portrayed perfectly. It’s a supporting role, but he establishes the tone of a film where the hardest hits are from poignant glances.

There’s no escaping the familiar route Punch takes with its story of forbidden love in a small town. However, Ings’s localisation of this universal issue gives the film character, combined with a well-chosen cast that provide a hefty blow, if not exactly a knockout.

Punch just premiered in the First Feature Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victoria Luxford - 25-11-2022

London-born Victoria Luxford has been a film critic and broadcaster since 2007, writing about cinema all over the world. Beginning with regional magazines and entertainment websites, she soon built up...

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