As one of the biggest South Korean films of the year, trailing in box office behind only The War of the Arrows and Sunny, the anticipation for the DVD release for Han Lee’s Punch was substantial. But it seems that more often than not, just like the American box office, that’s a dangerous thing to base any kind of hope on.
Like Sunny, Punch is another coming of age film, this time from a boy’s perspective. But instead of the bright, cutting sentimental edge that Sunny came out and won hearts with, Punch is little more than an amiable but misfiring attempt to take a bite out of the hardships of life for the poor in Korea. The bite barely makes it past the skin, foregoing the larger questions for easy answers, when there are answers at all.
Operating on the basis that hard luck stories will pull on everyone’s heartstrings with little coaxing, the film sscillates back and forth through a series of challenges and life obstacles for its teenage protagonist, Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), that never go anywhere or mean anything. Punch even fails at the basic task to at least put something interesting on the screen to mask the film’s puddle deep thought process.
So what are Won-deuk’s problems? The film starts out as the 18 year old’s father (Park Soo-young), a hunchback single dad just scraping by as part of a comedy dance act, loses his job when the cabaret he works at goes under. Because it’s the only thing he knows how to do, he tries to keep his act going by hitting the road, dancing at big flea markets, but ends up running afoul of the gangsters who run the place.
But that’s not really his problem. Because his father forbids him to quit school to start earning a living early, Won-deuk is left home under the not-so-watchful eye of their neighbor, Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). That’s his problem.
Dong-joo, aside from being a bad neighbor is also Won-deuk’s homeroom teacher, an emotional bully who torments him there even more than at home, where Won-duk can at least evade the man if he steps quietly enough up the stairs, even if he has to share his food aid packages with the demented mentor.
At church, Won-deuk pleads with God, begging him to strike Dong-joo dead. Of course, God doesn’t work like that, and even if he did, movies don’t work like that, and besides, Dong-joo is a wide-reaching problem, as he is an elder at the same church, and seems to never be without his bible. He even seems to be trying to help Won-deuk out, taking him to learn kickboxing and reuniting him with his estranged mother, who Dong-joo knows through church.
Our problem is that film never really delves deeply into any of Won-deuk’s problems, it just sort of states them matter-of-factly and either solves them without a whole lot of soul searching or definition, or just lets them pass quietly in the night. Punch is the definition of the neat little bundle. Won-deuk didn’t necessarily have abandonment issues, so when his mother comes into the picture and they start to creep up on him, they are underdeveloped and almost entirely contained by the fact that she is now around, making him dinner while is father is out trying to earn them some money. His biggest pang of doubt seems to be that it was the evil Dong-joo who reunited them. So Won-deuk’s new problem becomes that fact that his nemesis might not be such a bad guy afterall.
Kim Yoon-seok and his yelling matches with an irritable neighbor (Kim Sang-ho) are the lone bright spots in the film. I used to consider Kim something of a poor man’s Song Kang-ho, but he might have a little more width to him than that. He’s funny in an understated way that, like Song Kang-ho, sometimes spills over into short bursts of violence to shake away the boredom of an otherwise unimpressive film.