Although the DVD box art seems to suggest some kind of wacky martial arts comedy, “The Art of Fighting”, the directorial debut from Shin Han Sol, is actually a brutal, surprisingly bittersweet drama. This attempt at misdirection by the producers is a shame, as the film is very entertaining, being both amusing and thrilling, and deserves to reach a wider audience than its rather uninspiring exterior presentation may warrant.
The plot follows Byung Tae (Jae Hee, “3-Iron”), an awkward weakling whose school days are filled with beatings by a particularly vicious gang of thuggish bullies. One day Byung Tae meets Pan Su (Baek Yoon Sik, “Save the Green Planet”), a mysterious older man who it soon transpires is a skilled fighter. After a great deal of pathetic pleading by Byung Tae, Pan Su eventually agrees to train the teen, and begins a tough regimen designed to teach him how to finally stand up for himself.
Though the story is desperately familiar stuff, it is treated with a pleasingly stripped down economy, and avoids any needless subplots or any kind of tacked on romance. The characters are well rounded and believable, with a great, at times hilarious performance by Jae Hee as the gangly, wide-eyed coward who often seems to be half asleep. The sheer wretchedness which he displays during the early stages of the film generates an uncomfortable mixture of sympathy and embarrassment, and so his predictable journey to self-assertiveness is all the more believable.
Thankfully, the film retains a sense of realism throughout, as Byung Tae undergoes an incredible number of beatings, and it never falls into the trap of suddenly transforming him into a fighting machine. Baek Yoon Sik is similarly excellent as the reluctant mentor, in a role which is kept nicely enigmatic. Refreshingly, he is quite clearly a vicious man with a shady past, rather than a noble, righteous spirit. As a result, the gradual father-son dynamic which inevitably develops between the two men is handled in a subtle and plausible manner, and is based upon admiration rather than cheap sentiment.
The film is filled with action, though again in contrast to the way it has been advertised, there is little in the way of actual martial arts, and the fighting is generally street brawling, complete with a series of nasty tricks and broken bottles. The film is violent and startlingly bloody throughout, though with a definite cautionary air, clearly suggesting feelings of regret and guilt rather than acting as a simple glorification of masculinity and aggression. This adds a welcome layer of psychological depth and lifts the film above the simplicity of its initial premise.
There is also a fair amount of comedy, and the film is genuinely amusing throughout, though not in a way which undermines the drama. Most of the gags are derived from Byung Tae’s useless attempts to follow his mentor’s advice, including throwing coins and sneaky head butts, which generally result in further beatings. As well as being effectively amusing, these scenes serve to subtly illustrate his character’s development. It helps that Byung Tae quite obviously has a great deal of pent up rage, unsurprisingly due to the countless thrashings he takes, and so the viewer not only laughs at his many failures, but comes to honestly wish to see him land a few blows of his own.
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to be taken in by “The Art of Fighting”, which despite an initially uninspiring scenario makes for a captivating and exhilarating experience. Funny without resorting to the usual surrealistic slapstick, and action packed in a savage, though thoughtful way, it rates as one of the best Korean films of the year so far.
Han-sol Shin (director) / Dong-hyun Min, Han-sol Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-shik Baek …. Oh Man-su
Yeo-jin Choi …. Young-ae
Eung-su Kim …. Hyung-ho
Hyun-kyoon Lee …. Song Byung-tae