Punch: Busan Film Review

Latest by one of Korea’s great romanticists is a welcome departure.

Plenty of punches, both physical and emotional, get thrown around in the latest by traditional sentimentalist Lee Han.

Plenty of punches, both physical and emotional, get thrown around in the latest by traditional sentimentalist Lee Han.

Punch is a coming-of-age drama that unfolds on the fringes of society, still a decidedly rare locus for Korean cinema when the plot doesn’t involve tragedy and violence. Steadfastly steering away from school rivalry, parental conflict and/or death, first love and most of the tropes of the well-worn sub-genre, Han and scriptwriter Kim Dong-wu have adapted the wildly popular young adult novel into a largely engaging drama with fleeting moments of dry wit. Anchored by a refreshingly uneventful (in a good way) relationship between a high school boy, his father and his homeroom teacher, Punch engenders enough good will in its first 90 minutes to forgive Lee’s loss of focus in the last 20.

Punch should generate reasonably strong box office in Korea given its built-in audience and could play well in regional markets like Taiwan and Japan where both the subject matter and much of the cast are easily recognized. Overseas markets if any will be limited to festivals and urban centers that could be home to audiences familiar with Lee’s work, which could also bode well for ancillary.

To this point director Lee has made a name for himself for his maudlin romances and hyper-emotionalism — for proof look no further than the terminal illness treacle of Lover’s Concerto, the saccharinely cute Almost Love and the episodic relationship examination My Love. Do you see a pattern here? Punch is, at least at first glance, a considerably different film for Lee and jettisons the straight ahead romance of his earlier films. Whether or not that signals a permanent switch won’t be determined until his next release, but for now it at least proves Lee isn’t a one-trick pony.

High school student Wan- deuk (relative newcomer Yoo Ai-ne) is a loner that regu- larly solves his problems with violence, as evidenced by his brutal reaction to two thugs harassing his hunchback father Gak-sul (Park Soo-Young) and mentally handicapped uncle Min-ku (Kim Young-Jae) at a local market. Up to that point, the duo made a living at a vaudevillian cabaret that goes out of business. Taking their act to a street market doesn’t work too well. Later, he efficiently dispatches a fellow student that choses to crack jokes about his dad. His behavior and insular nature draw the attention of his tough-love teacher Dong-ju (Kim Yoon-Seok, Tazza: The High Rollers), who takes it upon himself to guide Wan-deuk through his teens and get him to channel his rage elsewhere — chiefly into kickboxing. Fortunately Dong-ju lives right next door, and so he can provide this guidance all day every day.

Elsewhere in Wan-deuk’s hectic life he is forced to deal with the discovery that the mother that abandoned him and Gok- sul is Filipino (Jasmine Lee). After tracking her down, again with some help from Dong-ju, he proceeds to forge a tentative mother-son bond with her. But wait. There’s more. There’s a foul-mouthed neighbor who can’t stand listening to Wan- deuk and Dong-ju fight across the rooftops (Kim Sang-ho, Moss), his sister Ho-jeong (Park Hyo-ju), a reluctant friendship with school thug Hyuk-ju and a budding romance with humili- ated good girl Yoon-ha.

Punch is billed as a story about Dong-ju taking Wan-deuk under his wing and giving him the support he desperately needs without even realizing it, but that just scratches the surface of Lee’s ambitious plans. Class, race, nationalism, disabil- ity and labor abuses are among the heady subjects he tries to address throughout the film.

The film starts strong, technically and narratively, and Lee somehow manages to juggle the various balls he throws up in the air. What makes Dong-ju zero in on Wan-deuk is unclear but it doesn’t really need to be. Why Wan-deuk responds is just as fuzzy. There is no bratty behavior from Wan-deuk towards his father, and Yoo and Park have an easy, oddly mature dynamic that feels based in genuine affection. Similarly, Kim’s interpretation of a curmudgeonly, painfully honest teacher that inspires through crankiness is far less contrived than it has a right to be. Kim borders on arid in his dry delivery of wisdom and is never less than compelling when he’s on screen. Dong-ju has his own crosses to bear but they’re dropped in organically, avoiding the groan-inducing Big Revealing Moments.

Sadly Punch doesn’t hold up right to the bitter end. A scene near the end that represents an idealized Korea with all the antagonists enjoying a good meal is enough to make your teeth ache — and proves Lee hasn’t completely abandoned his mushy side. The director loses focus in the final few minutes, wrapping up on such a high note you’ll be looking for a bow.