Directed by: ; Lee HanRuntime: 110 minutes
South Korea's Punch is a curiously dissimilar entry in its genre: it's a sports movie without much of a foreseeable "big game" to prepare for; it's a mentor-student drama with an unlikable, abrasive role model for the youth; and it's a coming-of-age story where the student exhibits very little observable change, outside of a newly-discovered outlet in a combat sport. These differences could potentially result in a courageous depiction of a teenager's metamorphosis amid impoverished living conditions, where the true effects of discipline and a physical hobby shape a lout into a winner; mostly, though, this film adaptation of Kim Ryeo-ryeong's popular novel plays it safe by sticking to the well-tread path taken by others of its type, only missing an end goal and embraceable character growth. Lee Han hasn't created a bad film, occasionally humorous and well-felt through sensible performances, but an inability to harness its distinctive qualities reduce it to something unremarkable and formless.
Following the shutdown of the dance cabaret where his disabled father and kooky uncle performed for many years, eighteen-year-old Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in) has become aggressive and unfocused as his family struggles to stay afloat in their cramped apartment. His frustration affects every part of his life, namely his grades and attendance at school, which causes him to violently lash out when he should keep his composure. This has caught the attention of his homeroom teacher, Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok, The Thieves), a belligerent and uncouth bum who verbally harasses Wan-deuk and scams him out of his family's food rations. Wan-deuk realizes that he has a knack for fighting, though, so when he's approached by someone at his church to train in kickboxing, he jumps at the chance. This new hobby gives him an outlet for his frustrations, which escalate as his uncles leave him to go work at the markets for days on end -- and when his estranged Filipino mother reenters his life.
Typically with these coming-of-age sports comedy-dramas, a life event sparks the young hero's interest in a particular sport, and a form of competition gives them an objective to aim for while sharpening their skills -- the tournament in The Karate Kid, the divisional placement in Win Win, and so on. Punch doesn't really have that, since Wan-deuk jumps into the sport of kickboxing for no other reason outside of a casual invitation during a worse-than-normal praying session; he eventually works towards a potential sparring match with another gym's fighters, but nothing substantial. In other words, Wan-deuk begins training for no other reason than his own well being and to occupy his idle hands, his own brand of "studying" towards something he's good at. While this is a dignified and more down-to-earth portrayal, it leaves the film without a reason to move forward, really, which forces the family drama to claim the spotlight in lieu of an exciting payoff for seeing him discover something that utilizes his talents.
The problem is that the drama in Punch rarely delivers any poignant blows -- partly because Wan-deuk father is so frequently out of the picture and because his mother reappears so opportunely, but also because his "mentor", Dong-zoo, is such a flagrant jackass. Kim Yoon-seok's performance here is strong as the homeroom teacher, bringing roughness to the role that works as more apathy than callousness, yet he's written in such a way that his hateful temperament makes his investment in a young teenager's life seem far-fetched, at the very least. Wan-Deuk himself even prays to God for Dong-zoo's death on a regular basis due to the teacher's harassment. Yet, the teacher's metamorphosis is arguably the story's most significant personal change, where he covers for Wan-deuk so he can train and assists with the mother-son reunion in some rather significant ways. One might be willing to see a complex character in Dong-zoo who allows himself to transition, even reveal a hidden empathetic side, but the story doesn't do a convincing job of making his shift feel organic around his bitter, resigned demeanor.
Punch's story, much like Wan-deuk's family in their small apartment among the Seoul rooftops, merely treads water until an opportunity for something positive comes along, while having a few easy --and, surprisingly, quite effective -- laughs at the expense of the characters' quirks and navigating the timely subject of (un)employment in South Korea. There's an underlying, uplifting message to discover as the young kickboxer gradually builds his talents in the ring and, as a result, builds his confidence around his peers (namely a certain girl): finding what you're good at is more important than forcing yourself to be someone you're not, as long as the circumstances allow for it. Conflicts emerge and are simply resolved around this idea in typically uplifting fashion, along with weepy family melodrama that doesn't really stick, but at least there's a decent moral backbone to Wan-Deuk's metamorphosis from a dead-end, angry kid into someone with more promising prospects. And when it effectively ends in a unconventional knockout, it misses an opportunity at more earnest, moving articulations of its themes.
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