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 debatably 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.
Video and Audio:
Right Stuf's 2.35:1-framed, 16x9 transfer is a fine, if unremarkable representation of organic drama-geared photography that features both suitable detail focus and hazy, uneven sharpness. Contrast, colors, and print clarity are all generally well-handled, where black levels respect details in darker scenes within Wan-deuk's apartment and in dark alleyways, and daytime sequences offer moments of real clarity once sunlight brings out those details. Skin tone balance and color fluctuations are generally quite nice during close-ups and in the kickboxing sparring matches, too. Some ringing around contours and garbled pixels crop up here and there, not to terribly extents but still noticeable, and a general lack of focus brings the image down a few notches. Despite a few issues, the transfer serves the film's cinematography capably enough, without many moments of true distinction.
The 2-channel Korean language makes up for its lack of surround capabilities with fine clarity and balance. There aren't a lot of sound effects to really pick apart here -- the thud of food containers tossed from apartment to apartment and the thud of boxing gloves get their point across -- so the primary feature to focus on is the dialogue, which sounds warm, clear, and aware of a fine stretch between low-end and high-end elements. The subtitles available alongside them are well-handled as well, with just a few very minor grammatical hiccups that can easily be tolerated while enjoying the film. Optional English subtitles are the only language option available here.
Roughly an hour of extras fill out Disc Two of this set, broken into segments lasting between ten and twenty minutes that feature praise-heavy interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and plentiful clips from the film itself that make the material appear as if it has more substance than it really does. Before the Movie (20:00, 4x3) features author Kim Ryeo-ryeong as she discusses the book, and how the film molds those entities into slightly-different yet reverential characters. This differs from About the Characters (10:00, 4x3), which focuses on the actors as they chat about the characters they portray. The meatiest of these features is a pair of general assembly explorations: "Hey you, Don Wan-deuk" (20:00, 4x3), which is essentially a making-of piece with director Lee Han front-and-center discussing his creative process, shooting locations and the book's themes; and Music Story (10:00, 4x3), which tackles the participation from composer Lee Jae-jin (whose work elegantly graces the films of Lee Chang-dong).
Aside from the Deleted Scene (8:51, 4x3), which are available with option director's commentary, and a Theatrical Trailer (1:42, 16x9), the rest of the special features mostly center on superficial content: a brief Poster Shoot Video (3:01, 4x3), an Image Gallery, text-based Director and Cast Bios, and some Liner Notes. It's solid supplemental package.
Punch is a harmless, unexceptional coming-of-age sports picture that had the potential to be something more than that, but opts to pull a few punches itself. Instead of using the things that differentiate novelist Kim Ryeo-ryeong's story from others of its type -- a willful avoidance of a big event, a harsher-than-normal mentor, and a faint, organic evolution of the teenager -- Lee Han's film adopts the same formula of other dramas like it, only missing something due to those lacking elements. The message is warm, the humor occasionally works, and the performances add authenticity to what happens, though, so it's hard to give this one a suggestion for a Rental due to its blemished replication of other, better expressions of the same ideas.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site