Every so often all filmmakers (perhaps) reach a stage in their careers when they feel the urge to branch out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t (I don’t care what anyone says, Martin Scorsese should never have made The Age of Innocence). Evidently, Korean director Lee Han has reached this stage. Lee is a master of the sentimental. His maudlin, über-emotional, saccharine films — the terminal illness pap of Lover’s Concerto, the dentist visit-inducing Almost Love — are exercises in the unbridled, old-school romanticism that has become a hallmark of Korean cinema; that along with the grotesque and graphic bloodshed of the revenge thriller. Discuss this conflict amongst yourselves.
The distributor of Lee’s latest, Punch, calls the film a story about a young man, Wan-deuk (newcomer Yoo Ai-ne), taken under wing by a cantankerous, brutally honest teacher with a solid gold heart, Dong-ju (Tazza: The High Rollers’ Kim Yoon-Seok), and offered the kind of adult guidance he didn’t even know he craved. This is accurate to a degree. The old Lee would have built those founding blocks into a syrupy romance about an angry boy and the teacher’s lovely daughter, who he meets while out bonding with the teacher. Blech. Lee Version 2.0 has bigger issues on his mind: labour abuses, the perception of disability in Korea and the holy trinity of “-Ism”s (class, race, national). It’s ambitious content given Lee’s track record, and Punch has its clumsy moments, but for the most part he pulls it off.
Part of what makes the film clumsy is Lee and writer Kim Dong-wu’s keen sense of who the film is for. Punch is about Korea and it’s for Koreans (adapted from the wildly popular young adult novel). To outside viewers Lee’s moralising and symbolism are far from subtle, which admittedly could be due to the YA source material (it’s certainly no more simplistic than anything by Stephenie Meyer, ahem). But for its intended audience it’s about on track. Punch is a coming-of-age story that unfolds in Korea’s fringe, and that’s still alien territory in Korean cinema.
Wan-deuk, his hunchback dad Gak-sul (Park Soo-Young) and his vaguely mentally handicapped uncle Min-ku (Kim Young-Jae) form the core family and in a breath of fresh air, they’re a functional family. Wan-deuk adores his dad and defends them both quite fiercely when they’re humiliatingly forced to take their vaudeville-style act to the streets when a theatre they performed in closes. He’s basically a good kid with a chip on his shoulder, which gets bigger when he finds out his long lost mother is a Filipino woman. There’s no bullying or high school violence, no out-of-the-blue terminal illness. There are no screaming matches with dad. For anyone who’s ever seen a Korean teenaged drama, it’s all very confusing at first.
Lee is simultaneously delicate and painfully obvious with the way he weaves his Big Issues into the story. Wan-deuk’s reunion and fragile budding relationship with his mother flirts with melodrama, but Lee clamps down on his instinct towards hyperbole and lets the pair be as cautious as they should be (even if they forge a relationship ridiculously fast). On the other hand Dong-ju’s secret work on behalf of exploited workers is about as understated as a sledgehammer to a union manual. And so it goes. Structurally there’s nothing unique or novel about Punch, but in a way that’s its greatest strength. By being so painfully uneventful (in a good way) it consistently surprises. It’s far from perfect: the reason for Dong-ju’s concern for Wan-deuk is never made clear and neither is Wan-deuk’s willingness to respond to the (hilariously) cranky teacher’s advice.
The sum total is that engaging performances across the board, a blessed lack of toilet humour in favour of genuine wit (Kim borders on arid at points) and a dearth of revelations that tip into groaners generate enough viewer good-will to forgive Lee letting things get away from him at the 90-minute mark. Lee steers the film to a happy ending (naturally) and a final sequence, when all the characters sit down for a family meal (at this point the “family” is a sprawling one), so hyper-idealised it recalls Lee of old. Your teeth will hurt. Lee’s clearly branching out, but he’s not ready to leave his soft side behind just yet.