Korean Film Review – The Punch

I find Korean cinema to be a strange beast.  There is no doubting that it is the leader when it comes to violent, gritty dramas and some would argue that it also leads the way in horror (I would say that is debatable with Europe, and in particular Spain, making some excellent horror films of late).

However, it seems that in the wrong hands, films with great potential and interesting premises suffer greatly from a lack of direction or the need to for every scene to be an overacted melodrama or slapstick performance.

A film that had been performing well in festivals all over Asia was Lee Han’s coming of age drama Punch, based on the novel Wandeuk by Kim Ryo-ryeong.

Punch is the story of Wan-deuk, a high school student who was raised by his disabled father and mentally challenged uncle, both former cabaret clowns. Living in poverty and being abused by other students causes him to constantly lash out and remain a loner.  To make matters worse, he seems to be a cause of fascination for his rebellious home room teacher, Dong-ju, who constantly berates Wan-deuk in a perverse attempt to teach him life lessons.  Wan-deuk’s life is complicated further when Dong-ju informs him that he knows the identity of his mother, a Filipino immigrant, who despite having no contact for most of his life, wants to get in touch.  What Wan-deuk initially saw as a spiteful act ultimately leads to the realisation that maybe his teacher does have his best interests at heart. This leads to a journey of self realisation as Wan-deuk channels his anger and energy into contact sports and trying and put his broken family back together again.

The Punch, full of top notch  performances from its diverse cast, is an excellent film.  With a hunchback, a mentally challenged clown, a filipino migrant and a teacher that steals food from his students, it could have easily have come across as a wacky ‘Welcome to Dong Makgol’-esque type movie. So could it have been a cheesy melodrama, but never does the film force you to feel sorry for its characters.  Taking place over the course of a school year, the film simply presents the world they inhibit and the actions they face and let’s you make up your own mind about them.

I can see why the film might be accused of being a little too sentimental and emotionally over the top, the film does veer into this territory in the last five minutes or so. However, maybe because this is a story so rarely told in Korean cinema, I was totally captivated by it and the film felt fresh to me.  Highly recommended.

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