2011 / Lee Han > Punch is not a blockbuster. It’s about a poor high school kid growing up with a disabled father hellbent on dancing at a cabaret. It’s about mothers and being an outsider in a closed off world. It’s about fathers and sons and teachers and students. Most importantly, it’s about knowing that one cannot separate all these, that in the evermore complicated world we live in, everything converges at once, and we must learn to find solace in such traffic. And yet, maybe that’s why the film sold 5.3 million tickets in South Korea (or a tenth of the population). In every aspect of the film, there’s something to identify with. And while Punch isn’t glossy, Lee’s direction has shadows of Ozu’s Floating Weeds in its relatively gentle approach to otherwise serious matters.
Centered around a subdued effort by Yoo Ah-in, who himself was a drop out and rose through the ranks as an independent actor, Punch successfully converges the aforementioned topics into a calming, enjoyable piece of work that touches upon, most interestingly but within respectable context, the institution of international marriage. Wan-deuk, the film’s Korean namesake, discovers that his mother is Filipino. Combined with a hunchbacked father, the duo is a troubling mix for any teenager. Yet with the guidance of a teacher (who also happens to be his next door neighbour), he pushes through while learning some kickboxing along the way. At its weakest, it’s charming. At its strongest, Punch exposes a sizable majority of the Korean population to the optimistic end of broken homes. All this being said, it does one thing more…
Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) and Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy): For the last decade plus, these three have been the male triumvirate of Korean cinema. Their range, skill and ability to carry films even with minimal screentime have been a gift to moviegoers, but now we must work on adding a fourth: Kim Yun-seok. Active throughout the 2000s, Kim truly broke out as the morally melted cop-slash-pimp in Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser in 2008. He followed that up with a grinding, fearless performance in Na’s follow-up, The Yellow Sea, where he’s a Korean gangster from across the waters. And now comes his turn as an enigmatic teacher whose moral compass seems a bit off. It’s a role that’s vastly different from the hard-edged nature of his previously noted efforts, but it’s one that he owns. Yoo and Kim’s back-and-forth rapport is a joy to watch and keeps the film from becoming an out-and-out melodrama.
To fully capture the impact of Punch in the Korean mindset, it should been noted that Filipino immigrant Jasmine Lee, who plays Wan-deuk’s mother, has been shortlisted by the majority-controlling Saenuri Party as a potential candidate. Whether this is smoke and fog doesn’t matter. The fact that this is even a possibility is significant in Korean culture and politics and speaks to the impact of the film.