On the surface Lee Han’s new feature may not seem like much as it treads well-worn territory such of the coming-of-age drama and the sports film. Even as it unspools it doesn’t seem to break any new ground as we are introduced to a very familiar plot and a fairly typical coterie of characters. What sets it apart is the skill in its staging. Though a standard narrative, it is so well executed that it beckons you into its story with a gesture that, like from an old friend, is both welcoming and comforting. Once you’re nestled into Punch’s world, which hardly takes a moment, subtle and sometimes surprising elements flutter into the film and the outwardly simplistic characters slowly become more fleshed out. Though it takes some time to realize that you are watching a film that is much more complex than its easygoing exterior lets on. Lee, who has previously made a name for himself with a series of well-crafted romance films such as Lover’s Concerto (2002), Almost Love (2006) and Love, First (2007), deftly and almost imperceptibly handles the narrative’s many cogs.
Punch is about a resourceful but reserved adolescent, Wan-deuk, who has grown up without a mother and in a poor and unconventional setting, he has been raised by his hunchbacked father and a camp adopted uncle. His reviled teacher Dong-joon (played by Kim Yun-seok) lives next door and constantly harangues him, though it is obvious that he is affectionate towards him. Dong-joon comes to Wan-deuk one day with the news that he has found his mother but the more surprising revelation is that she is not Korean. Themes of multi-culturalism, religion and acceptance abound in the narrative and while the going is often light and frothy, the subtext is clear and very well integrated.
The Korean title of Punch is Wandeuki, which is the name of the principal protagonist but make no mistake about it this is Kim Yun-seok's film. Though ostensibly a co-star and despite his performance never being extravagant, he quietly manages to steal every scene he appears in. Principally known for his gruff characters in thrillers such as The Chaser (2008), Running Turtle (2009) and The Yellow Sea (2010), Kim shows of his considerable talents for comedy and pathos as the anchor of this delightful studio hit. He punctuates his role with shoulder shrugs and a shuffling gait, all the while rising to the comic demands of the script with his extremely droll wit. As in all his performances, his eyes play a large part, they are at the same time sluggish and keen and able to convey such a wealth of emotion that I honestly don’t know how he does it.
However, not for a moment do I mean to take away from the achievements of the rest of the cast, which are admirable in their own right. Yoo Ah-in, in the lead role, may not quite look like a 17-year-old (he’s 25) but he sells his character well with a balanced blend of naivety and innocent aggression, more importantly he just about keeps in step with Kim’s comic timing. The film’s other Kim is Kim Sang-ho, a stout little actor with a bald head and frizzy hair who brightens up every film he appears in, even the bad ones, and he has been in some atrocious features, such as last year’s woeful Champ. He’s in his element here as an irritable next door neighbour who mostly appears as an expletive-laced voice off-screen as he rains abuse down on Wan-deuk and his teacher.
Punch’s only real shortcomings boil down to two points. The first is that by force of having so many well-drawn out characters and relevant themes, the story can seem a little thin at times. It can come off as a little strung together, almost episodic. One such episode is the boxing, which the English title suggests is a central concern, but it turns out that it is a bit of a misnomer as the combat sport’s role in the narrative is actually quite limited. The second point is that the film’s social agenda, as well as its resolution, are perhaps a little too facile and on the nose to have any real weight. Granted its depiction and exploration of the various –isms that pepper its narrative are certainly a step above the majority of Korean films which have attempted similar things, particularly within the studio system. Since Lee is known for his saccharine signature style, he has stayed his hand here. Relatively speaking, he’s actually quite reserved which is a great blessing for the film.
After seeing Punch it was abundantly clear why it became such an unexpected hit. Its charm, wit and engaging characters stay with you long after exiting the theater. Personally I had a big grin on my face the whole time and I was so invested in the film’s protagonists that I was sad to be leaving them when the credits rolled. This is the kind of film that reminds you why Korean cinema is so well-regarded. Even in the absence of a big auteur and a polished mise-en-scene, the industry is still capable of putting out charming and wonderful films like Punch.
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