Directed by Han Lee
Written by Dong-Woo Kim
South Korea: 2011
Contrary to popular belief, the Fantasia International Film Festival is not some movie haven for those seeking pure thrills via genre pictures. True to its traditions, the event awards screen time to some the world’s more outlandish movies, from pure gore fests, ghost stories, the most mind bending psychological thrillers and, a personal favourite, martial arts films. That being said, if one takes the time to carefully look through the lineup, one will come to understand that simpler films can be discovered, little gems that concentrate much more on the drama than on the shrieks. Punch, from South Korean director Han Lee, comes to the festival as an alternative to all those ‘weird’ movies, offering a coming of age story, albeit one with some attitude.
Wan-deuk (Ah In Yoo) is a teenage loner. He has few friends at school, no girlfriend, lives a somewhat impersonal relationship with his hunchback father (Su-young Park) in a lower class neighbourhood in Seoul. The father frequently To top it off, his sociology teacher, Mr. Lee (Yun-seok Kim), whom he calls Zoo Dung, lives across in an top floor apartment literally across the narrow street from them. Mr. Lee, while not a bad person to say, has his own particular way of interacting with the world, especially with teens like Wan-deuk, whom he frequently scolds for his poor grades and poor attitude, as his father does, primarily for his continuous involvement in brawls.. Wan-deuk’s world begins to change once Mr. Lee, up until then nothing more than a machine for sarcastic quips, begins to offer Wan-deuk some gripping information on the family’s past, namely, that he has come in contact with the boy’s long lost mother, a Filipino immigrant. Thus slowly commences a personal journey through which Wan-deuk opens up a little bit to the world around and discovers some self-worth, chiefly by taking some kickboxing classes as a way to channel his energy.
Where Han Lee’s Punch could have gone wrong is in adhering too closely to the tried, tested and true blueprint of so many coming of age stories with protagonists and supporting characters like the ones the audience meets here. The protagonist has the potential for being more social, but requires that special first push, his mentor is the unlikely teacher with whom he does not get along, families ties need to be knotted together after years of separation, etc. It is not very difficult to figure in which direction the story of Punch is headed. Hence, what matters is how the director and cast handle the material. Can they bring anything new, even if it amounts to subtle touches? The answer is ‘yes’, and a clear cut, resounding ‘yes’ it is in fact.
It has been written time and time again, primarily by non South Korean film critics and fans who possess that ever precious outsiders look into the nation’s cinematic accomplishments, how the country’s filmmakers effortlessly blend multiple tones within a single picture. On whole, ‘movie A’ may be tagged under a specific genre category, yet in reality it offers many small doses of disparate tones and genres to satisfy a whole ton of people. Punch never diverges too far away from the coming of age tale which is at the picture’s core, although in true cinematic Korean fashion, it packs something of an attitude to go along with the comedy (and the movie is very funny at times) sentimentality. In fact, while sentimentality is part of the game plan, such moments feel rather far and between, for they are sandwiched between a lot of attitude. Attitude is a funny thing in movies. with regards to a story such as the one told in Punch. Venture too far deep and a picture incurs the risk of its audience abandoning it, whereas too much timidity leaves the film as a fluff piece. Punch locates that elusive balance, where the tough characters, such Mr. Lee and the foul mouthed landlord who berates the renters endlessly, can pursue their instinctive bad streaks despite that the tone of the plot becomes ever more uplifting as it moves along. There are no shortages of fouled mouthed, angry people in this movie, but despite that, Punch can be accepted as solid story wherein positive thinking triumphs over all else.
Supporting the story and the director’s vision is a compelling, eclectic cast. Ah In Yoo, rather than merely filling in the role of the empty slate who must discover himself, is in fact a charming young actor who brings some interesting nuance to his role. As previously stated, his character has the potential to be something better than he is at the start of the film, therefore requiring that the audience recognize some of the good in him from the get go, something Ah In Yoo accomplishes just that all the while demonstrating a rough edge. Yun-seok Kim will be the one most people remember about Punch, seeing as he gets to play the loudest, most sarcastic cat of the bunch. What makes the performance work is in the actor’s ability to convey not only the ill temper, but the sense that there is a beating heart underneath. Su-young Park, as Wan-deuk’s father, Yeong-jae Kim as the former’s dance partner and Byeol Kang as the high school girl who befriends the protagonist are all good in their supporting roles.
Punch makes for some easy watching, with a simple enough story told with much dedication from its director and cast. It shan’t shake the movie world, but sometimes a little bit of comforting entertainment is all one needs.
- Edgar Chaput