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“Punch” is the latest outing from Korean director Lee Han, mostly known for romantic comedies and dramas such as “Lover’s Concerto”, “Almost Love” and “Love, First”. Here, he takes on something a little different with the tale of an awkward young man and his relationship with his unconventional teacher, played by upcoming talent Yoo Ah In (“Sungkyunkwan Scandal”) and award winning veteran Kim Yoon Seok (“The Yellow Sea”) respectively. Based upon a novel by Kim Ryeo Ryeong, the film proved extremely popular with both audiences and critics in Korea, emerging as one of the year’s biggest hits.
Yoo Ah In plays Wan Deuk, a 17 year old high school student who lives with his hunchbacked cabaret performer father (Park Soo Young, “Architecture 101”) and mentally challenged uncle (Kim Young Jae, “Vegetarian”) in a rundown apartment. Doing badly at school and an outsider amongst his classmates, Wan Deuk is constantly getting into fights and running into trouble with teachers. Worst of all is the fact that his homeroom teacher Dong Joo (Kim Yoon Seok) just happens to live next door, plaguing him everyday and seeming to have a special interest in pushing him around. Despite his gruff manner, Dong Joo is actually doing his best to help the boy, trying to get him to focus his brawling through training as a kickboxer, and insisting that he try and reconcile with the Filipina mother (Filipina-Korean actress Jasmine Lee, “Secret Reunion”) who abandoned him and his father years back.
“Punch” is a very different film to what might have been expected, not least since it sees Lee Han making a marked move away from the generic melodrama of his earlier efforts. The film is pleasingly hard to pigeonhole, being neither the coming of age drama nor the sports underdogger suggested by the premise, bringing together its many elements and eccentric characters to tell a warmly human story of family and acceptance. Showing excellent storytelling, Lee similarly manages to avoid all the usual clichés, the film shying away from big events and artificial nonsense, with no sudden revelations or last act saccharine twists. Although it could be argued that not much happens, for the most part simply following the characters around and watching them interact, the film is effortlessly engaging, and despite a slow pace and lengthy running time there’s a genuine sense of character development, a rare and invaluable benefit which really pulls the viewer into the narrative. Lee works in a gentle, non-slapstick sense of humour, and as well as making for a few surprisingly effective laughs, this prevents the film from ever dwelling too much on its sadder side.
The film also succeeds through combining all of this with some well-judged social commentary, dealing with issues of discrimination and charting how Korean society treats immigrants and the mentally and physically handicapped. This influences the film’s many different relationships, Lee juggling an impressive number of dynamics in believable and often unexpected fashion. The three parent-child pairings in the film are arguably at its heart, and it’s the fascinating, shifting bond between Wan Deuk and Dong Joo which ultimately provides the biggest emotional kick. Wan Deuk’s slowly developing reunion with his mother is also very rewarding, Lee covering some complicated ground as the two confront their pasts. Again, what particularly impresses is the way in which such rich emotional material is tackled without fuss or unnecessary tears, and nothing about the way in which the characters come together feels forced.
All of this is made possible by some excellent acting from every member of the cast, and the film emerges as a wonderful ensemble piece. Yoo Ah In is excellent in the nominal lead, managing to convey a mixture of confusion and decency without falling back on troubled youth petulance or naivety. Kim Yoon Seok again shows himself one of the finest actors in Korea today, doing a superb, multi-layered job in a complex part, playing Dong Joo as a man with his own motivations and problems, rather than just a spur for Wan Deuk’s development. The supporting cast are all great too, Jasmine Lee and Park Soo Young hitting just the right notes, eliciting sympathy without ever making the viewer feel manipulated.
It’s easy to see why “Punch” has gone down so well, as it really is much better than the average Korean melodrama, managing to tackle many of the same themes without the usual cheap tricks and tiresome tugging at the heartstrings. Easily Lee Han’s best and most substantial film to date, it’s both moving and challenging, offering an appealing set of offbeat characters, sly humour and honest human drama.
Han Lee (director) / Dong-Woo Kim (screenplay), Lyeo-ryung Kim (based on the novel by)
CAST: Yun-seok Kim … Dong-joo
Ah In Yoo … Wan-deuk
Su-young Park … Wan-deuk’s father
Yeong-jae Kim … Uncle Min-goo
Hyo-ju Park … Ho-jeong