Now Reading
Small, Slow but Steady – BFI London Film Festival Review

Small, Slow but Steady – BFI London Film Festival Review

Boxing is a dangerous sport at the best of times, but for deaf fighters, those dangers are ratcheted up a level. When you can’t hear the bell, or advice from your coaches, or even the referee, the chances of getting hurt are seriously heightened – for that reason, many boxing gyms refuse to sign up clients with hearing impediments.

So Keiko (Yukino Kishii), though talented, was lucky to find one willing to take her on. Introverted to an almost reclusive extent, she’s found a haven training under the kind Chairman (Tomokazu Miura). But he’s getting on in years, and aging is taking its toll on his body. And since the Covid pandemic, the number of clients at the Arakawa gym has dropped precipitously. He’s going to have to close – but what will Keiko do then?

Small, Slow But Steady – which is loosely based on the novel Don’t Give Up by Keiko Ogasawara, a real-life hearing impaired boxer – is far from a typical boxing movie. We only see Keiko in two matches, and even in them, winning and losing isn’t portrayed as all that important. The film is more interested in boxing for the ritual and the rigor of it; among the most memorable scenes here are when she is just sparring with the Chairman or one of her coaches, and the movie lulls you in with the mesmerising rhythm of the punches, and the dance-like movement. For Keiko, boxing is both a catharsis (“punching makes me feel good,” she explains succinctly), and a solace.

The sport, and especially practising it at the gym, is also a valuable way for her to connect with the world. She doesn’t have to explain her deafness; she can just lose herself in the practice she loves, with people who understand her, and what she needs. With all the upheaval of Covid – a particular strain on the hearing impaired, with masks making lipreading impossible – it has become even more valuable. The trauma of having that comfort yanked from her is deep, and not easily resolved, even by locating another gym that would be willing to train her.

And yet there’s nothing that can be done. Small, Slow But Steady is not a ‘let’s save the gym!’ movie, but a ‘let’s deal with change!’ movie, and it stays right by Keiko’s side as she works out how she’s going to move forward.

What’s especially lovely about this gentle, tender film is that it presents us with a community that is eager to support her. Whilst it doesn’t minimise how her deafness makes Keiko’s life harder, neither does it festoon her with cheesy bullies who mock her disability (though there is a mention that being bullied as a child is what made her want to take up boxing in the first place); the worst she encounters is a man who doesn’t realise she can’t hear him and becomes unduly irritated. Almost everyone else Keiko comes across can already sign or is in the process of learning, or else is happy to communicate via the written word. When people are impatient with her, it’s usually because she closed herself off from them, not because of her hearing impairment. They want to connect, if she’ll only let them.

When she starts to open up, Keiko’s world becomes much bigger than the confines of the Arakawa Boxing Gym. Watching her undergo that process, bathing in the warm glow of Small, Slow But Steady’s faith in humanity, is a beautiful experience.


View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.