Film 'Count' centers on aftermath of boxer Park Si-hun's controversial Olympic win

Film director Kwon Hyeok-jae, top, and boxer Park Si-hun met with the JoongAng Ilbo on Feb. 24 at a photo studio in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [JOONGANG ILBO]

For some, even a single day can be enough to completely transform their lives. That was the case for Park Si-hun when he was just a 23-year-old rising boxer on Oct. 2, 1988.

During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he won the gold medal in the men’s light middleweight category, a feat which Park describes as “puzzling.”

At the time, most spectators and journalists present had expected Roy Jones Jr. (Park's opponent) to be named the winner, leading to this incident becoming controversial with questions over the fairness arising.

His opponent from Team USA requested for a review from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and even local media criticized Park’s victory, citing it as “farfetched,” “a stain on a well-played game” and “disgraceful,” practically forcing him to retire from the ring.

“I wanted to bawl my eyes out,” Park, 58, told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, late last month.

“It felt like this movie washed away 35 years’ worth of sorrow that I had buried away in my heart.”

Park is referring to “Count,” which premiered on Feb. 22. It centers on the events after the Olympics, which saw Park take a job teaching P.E. at a high school in his hometown Jinhae, South Gyeongsang in 1998. Actor Jin Sun-kyu landed his first lead role in a film as Park.

The JoongAng Ilbo also met with director Kwon Hyeok-jae, 43, at a photo studio in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, the same day as the interview with Park. Park is now a coach for a boxing team in Seogwipo City Hall in Jeju Island. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

A scene from film ″Count″ (2023), which centers on former boxer Park Si-hun, played by actor Jin Sun-kyu [CJ ENM]

Q. It’s been 13 years since your last film, “Troubleshooter” (2010). What influenced you to take on the story of Park Si-hun’s boxing career?

A. Kwon: A couple of films I was working on kept getting canceled. Then around 2016 I received a script from the CEO of production company filmK about a boxing gold medalist from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I was initially worried that it would fail to see success because the plot was “too nice” in that it’s about finding hope in the midst of hardships. But seeing how the story was comforting to me, I was sure that it would also be the same for others. That’s when I decided that I needed to meet Park for myself.

A scene from film ″Count″ (2023), which centers on former boxer Park Si-hun, played by actor Jin Sun-kyu [CJ ENM]

You must have had a rough time after the Olympics.

Park: People were pointing fingers at me, calling me a “traitor” and demanding that I “return my medal.” I still remember how an anchor listed all the gold medalists in a live report and skipped my name. I suffered from social anxiety disorder and felt so much hatred toward society. All I did was go up in the ring and do my best to win, but afterward I was left thinking that my own country had abandoned me. The scene in the movie when the son gets bullied by other kids saying, “Your dad’s gold medal is fake” is actually a true incident.

The IOC eventually dismissed allegations from the United States in 1997 that there were any bribery involved in the judging process and Park became finally free from the accusations. Still, he says it was not enough to rid him of his already tainted image.

A scene from film ″Count″ (2023), which centers on former boxer Park Si-hun, played by actor Jin Sun-kyu [CJ ENM]

Did you ever find out why the judges chose to rule in your favor?

Park: It was during the Cold War (1947-91), so there were rumors that East Germany bribed the judges to win more gold medals than the United States [East Germany won one more gold medal than the United States with 37]. I guess I became the scapegoat in the battle among socialist and capitalist nations.

“Count” doesn’t touch on the political aspects.

Kwon: There was an option of turning the film into a social drama if we were to mention those parts. But I wanted the core subject to be about the 10 years after, about a person who had to give up on what he loved and find his way back to it. That’s why the film ended up focusing on the bright growth story of 33-year-old Park who became a P.E. teacher and helps his students chase after their dreams.