Films revolving around the freedom of asserting one’s identity, dealing with the right to a way of life, are quite revealing of the times we live in, making them an important watch. Punch, the new film by writer director Welby Ings, deals with the issue of identity, placing us in Pirau, a small seaside town in New Zealand. Viewing the town’s worldview through a sharp socio-political lens, the film begins exploring the lives of two classmates, Jim and Whetu, and the price they must pay for asserting their true identity.
Jim is an up and coming boxer, being trained by his concerned but overbearing father. Whetu, a Maori boy, lives in a hut away from the suburban settlement. Jim is nicely fitted in his social group, while Whetu is an outcast. Both their lives start undergoing dramatic changes once they start getting close to one another.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Punch’?
Jim’s single father has trained Jim to be a boxer right from his childhood. This meant not staying out, playing with friends, or pursuing anything else. Even Jim’s birthday was to be a training day. All the hard work looked as if it had paid off. Now 17, Jim had grown up to be in great shape, ready to get in the ring to box in his first professional fight. His life revolved around boxing, but lately his father had increased the intensity of his smothering concern. He constantly asked him of his whereabouts, didn’t let him pursue his hobby of filmmaking, and he wasn’t too impressed with his friends either, viewing them as a distraction. To be fair, Jim’s friends were not the brightest bunch. Their favorite activities included burning daylight on the beach or hurling obscene language and slurs at Whetu, a fellow classmate.
It was no secret that Whetu was gay; even the school’s teachers were aware of it, and it wasn’t as if he was even remotely interested in keeping up appearances, unlike Jim, who had practically buried his real identity. Having an overbearing father and his girlfriend, who was attracted to him, Jim’s way of salvaging freedom from the fake life was to literally run away from it all, going to the other side of town, where he ran into Whetu and a friendship began.
How Do Jim And Whetu Bond?
Jim was fascinated with Whetu, even while his friends were busy toying with him, calling him names. But Jim didn’t have the courage yet to call them out on their insensitive and offensive behavior. He too had internalized that kind of attitude, although he did not admit that to himself. When Whetu spots him running around on the beach, reveling in his few minutes of temporary freedom, Jim is taken aback by it. Upon seeing Whetu, he reacts the same way as one of his friends might have, which made Whetu feel completely unwelcomed. Unafraid, Whetu returns the same kind of unwelcoming attitude towards Jim when he steps onto his territory.
A bad start one might say. Both begin on the wrong foot with each other. Jim takes out his feelings during his sparring sessions, maybe questioning the reaction that he had upon seeing Whetu observing him naked on the beach. It doesn’t turn out to be a dead end, though. The beach was the one place both could meet, as there was no one present there after noon. Whetu spots Jim there again, who is seen filming the ocean on his camera. Jim suddenly gets stung by a jellyfish, and Whetu comes in to save his life, handing him his inhaler. He takes him back to his hut and administers first aid, giving him his t-shirt. Jim is embarrassed by the whole thing and becomes a little nervous when Whetu comes close to him and removes the jellyfish’s tentacles from his bare body. Jim returned back to his house wearing Whetu’s t-shirt, and from that day onward, he became a regular at Whetu’s place.
Jim found Whetu to be a very cool person. He had made his own hut, collected unique items, cooked his own food, and also wasn’t afraid to be himself. He could draw, and his singing was something to behold. He had dreams of going to Sydney to be a singer. He was a young soul with so many talents, yet was living alone in a secluded area, away from the cruel jokes of his classmates and contemptuous gaze of the town. All because it had come out in the open that he was gay. One day, his angst overspills and he eggs Jim on to confront his true identity and bring it out in the open, knowing too well he wasn’t in a position to do so. He had his life carefully planned out: To win the boxing match and get out of town. Why would he risk it all now?
Whetu and Jim had found a companion in each other, but the feeling of one person wearing his heart on his sleeve and the other choosing to remain in the closet created a rift so strong that it was hard to reconcile. When Jim doesn’t stand up against his friends’ hateful behavior, Whetu is enraged at his cowardice. He sees it as a betrayal and stops meeting him. Jim apologizes to him for not taking a stand, but Whetu continues his cold behavior. Neither was aware that it could probably be their last time seeing each other.
Who Vandalized Whetu’s Hut? Why Was He Attacked?
After losing Jim as a companion and facing constant jibes from his classmates, Whetu leaves school and goes back to his hut, and finds that it has been vandalized. The film doesn’t give a clear answer as to who did that exactly but it could have either Jim’s friends, who might have been enraged by his behavior or it might have been the town’s other residents, especially those related with the boxing community. Their motive might have been to fluster Whetu into behaving in a manner that would give them the excuse they were looking for to assault him.
Whetu is indeed disturbed seeing his abode destroyed in an obvious hate-crime. As a mark of protest, he decides to march, putting makeup on his face and wearing a black dress, making his presence felt on Pirau’s streets, antagonizing the town’s ultra-orthodox sensibilities. He gets attacked by Dave, Ron, and other members of the boxing network, who force themselves on him, beating him up and leaving him for dead.
How Does This Incident Affect Jim’s Relationship With His Father?
Jim is distraught hearing the news. Surprisingly, it is Jim’s father who receives the call where he gets told of Whetu’s critical condition. Jim had a strained relationship with his father. His overbearing concern and his alcoholism were the main factors contributing to the issue. But after this incident, something changes in their relationship. Jim’s father suddenly drops his persona of the tough father who was constantly using negative reinforcement to motivate Jim. When Jim starts to feel guilty for Whetu’s current state, Jim’s father embraces him, calming him down. They even start spending time together on the beach, making it seem like the first time that Jim’s father shows another side of fatherhood than just being a boxing coach.
What Could Be The Reason Behind This Sudden Change In Jim’s Father?
This sudden shift in personality could be because of the secrets he kept hiding from his son. The first secret is obvious. He was suffering from cancer but had kept it a secret from Jim. The drinking must have had an impact on the liver, and he probably knew he wasn’t going to live for very long, which is why he changed his attitude towards him, wanting to leave him with pleasant memories. The deeper reality could be that he himself was gay and understood the helplessness Jim must be feeling seeing his companion suffer. There is no explicit conversation about it in the film. Jim doesn’t come out to his father, and neither does he, but given the orthodox attitude of the town, it would be expected for Jim’s father to act violently upon seeing his son associate with someone like Whetu. His reaction is completely opposite of that. He seems like he could feel the strait-jacket of the town, tightening its grip on his son as well, which is why he had bet all his money on Jim to make him have an opportunity to leave the horrible place. The same place where he himself had to live all alone without a partner, perhaps owing to its orthodox discriminatory values, unable to assert his true identity. The consequence of that could have been death, a fate he does not want for Jim.
‘Punch’ Ending Explained: Why Does Whetu Leave Pirau? Did Jim Win His Boxing Match?
Jim was distraught after Whetu got hospitalized. As an apology for betraying him earlier, he decided to mend his hut and make it like it was before. He went to the hospital constantly, taking care of him. When Whetu gets better, he and Jim spend their days in the hut, except during Jim’s training. Jim asks Whetu if he remembered who assaulted him, but he doesn’t reveal their identity to him, which is why when Dave and Ron come to take him away from his father to train him in a better way, he goes along with them. His father’s alcoholic condition doesn’t help. Ron, however, denigrates him, suspecting him to be Whetu’s friend, and threatens him to play ball when the topic of his father’s involvement in the training comes into the picture. Jim is overwhelmed by emotion.
Jim had tried living a false life, kept up appearances, and yet he was being threatened based on his identity. Feeling dejected, he goes to Whetu’s place, and they get intimate, with Jim finally throwing caution to the wind. Seeing Jim accepting himself must have made Whetu reveal the identity of his attackers. Jim helps him get some sort of closure by helping him light Ron’s precious car on fire. Ron and other’s immediately find out who was behind the arson. A lot of money was riding on Jim, which is why they avoided hurting him before the match, but they could have easily attacked Whetu again, which is why he leaves Pirau and finds his own community of like-minded and welcoming individuals abroad.
On the day of the fight, Ron and others don’t allow Jim’s father to stand by his side during the match. When he sees his frail father disrespected, he leaves the arena with his father, forfeiting the fight midway, letting go of all the money he would have had had he won the fight.
Jim decided to drop the act altogether. Boxing was his way of gaining control of his life in the town. It must have been the same with his father. What did it all amount to, after all? His father had become an alcoholic and now awaited death. Punching his way out of life must have been his father’s way of surviving, but Jim understood that the cycle had to end with him. He walked away from the money, and after his father passed away, he decided to become a full-fledged filmmaker, making music videos. It was also a way of honoring his time with Whetu, who was following his own dream of being a singer. Jim had lost the fight in a literal sense but won the battle inside his own mind.
He might end up meeting Whetu again, and they might continue their companionship, but even if they don’t ever meet, one thing is certain: they have helped each other realize that constantly fighting the system is not the most intelligent way of living one’s life. One can become too spiteful when in combat with the hateful system. If one was to fight for a cause, one had to keep his heart light. They knew they had to do what they loved the most while being around loving people who accepted them as they really are.