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“Three Kims” is a film which attempts to put a comic twist on the time honoured martial arts genre, as well as marking the debut proper of director Park Sung Gyun. Given the usual predilection for first time Korean directors to add to the endless number of painfully earnest gangster thrillers, this brave choice alone surely earns Park bonus points, though he goes one further in assembling a top notch cast of talented comic actors in an all-out bid for laughs.
The plot is instantly familiar in the great martial arts tradition, being set in a small town which is home to two rival masters, one who practices Taekkyun (Shin Hyun Jun, also in the likes of “Shadowless Sword” and the “Marrying the Mafia” films) and the other Kendo (Choi Sung Kook, also in “Crazy Assassins”), both of who just happen to be called Kim. As well as competing for students, the two are locked in deadly combat for the hand of the local beauty, who seems to be pretty much the only woman in town. Into their conflict comes yet another master Kim, this time a kung fu expert (Kwon Oh Joong, “Damo”) who puts them both to shame with his dizzying skills and suave charm. Eventually, real danger arrives in the form of some unscrupulous land developers, forcing the three to join forces for the greater good.
“Three Kims” works mainly due to the fact that director Park aims squarely for the funny bone throughout, playing almost every aspect of the film for laughs. Although there are a handful of scenes parodying recent high profile martial arts hits, as opposed to an out-and-out spoof, the film as a whole sticks to poking gentle fun at the conventions of the genre. This proves to be a wise move, since it allows for a proper plot of sorts to develop rather than the kind of loosely strung together series of gags which might have been expected.
Most of the jokes hit home and come in the form of face pulling and broad physical slapstick, largely stemming from the fact that the Kims are a pretty wretched bunch, obsessed with one-upmanship and given to acts of petty vandalism. Despite this, the humour is of the wacky rather than mean spirited variety, and though there are plenty of laughs at the expense of the frequently daft behaviour of the characters, the film has an undeniably warm hearted and upbeat feel which serves it well.
The film is an ensemble piece, with the amiable and likeable characters each developing their own distinct personalities that, whilst not exactly deep, do at least show a bit more fleshing out than is usual in such comedies. As a result, the viewer actually comes to care for the three fools, and the inevitable friendship which grows from their rivalries is surprisingly genuine and oddly touching. Much of this is the result of the excellent performances from the three leads, with Shin Hyun Jun on great form as the manic, constantly whining Taekkyun master, and with both Kwon Oh Joong and Choi Sung Kook providing slightly straighter, though no less amusing foils. There is real chemistry between the three, and this lifts the film from being a mere rib tickler to something with a little more substance.
There is plenty of martial arts action throughout the film, especially towards the end when things turn semi-serious and concerns of heroism and righteousness take over, and it is to Park’s credit that he manages to keep a balance between the pratfalls and proper fight scenes. Although it is fair to say that the film is unlikely to satisfy viewers looking for hard-hitting kung fu, the battles are frequent and well-choreographed, making for plenty of thrills and spills. As an added benefit, Park manages to slip in a few philosophical comments on martial arts traditions and what drives people to learn how to fight, and does so without ever slowing things down or drifting into melodrama.
Park’s direction is appropriately bright and breezy, with plenty of visual flourishes, and some amusing nods to comic books and video games, something which gives the film a definite contemporary feel despite the age-old scenario. Sensibly, Park also keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, helped by the colourful look and energetic soundtrack, which lend the proceedings a definite inspirational air.
Through this, “Three Kims” taps into the quality which has made other recent martial arts comedies such as “Kung Fu Hustle” great, offering plenty of wild gags whilst at the same time showing genuine knowledge of and respect for the conventions of the genre. The result is a film which is entertaining throughout, in no small part due to the great work by the three leads, and which should be enjoyed by viewers of all persuasions.
Seong-gyun Park (director) / Seong-gyun Park (screenplay)
CAST: Hyeon-jun Shin