[HanCinema's Film Review] "Punch"

Lee Han's "Punch" is based on Kim Ryeo-ryeong novel entitled "Wan-Deuk Yi" which was published in March 2008. The film is said to have largely stayed true the popular novel and its success on the big screen has placed it currently as Korea's forth highest grossing film of 2011. This comedy drama deals with a range of sociocultural issues currently being experienced in Korea, but this is not what defines the film as a whole. With its excellent screenplay and captivating acting performances, "Punch" is a truly character-driven story that paints a silver lining around its characters' misfortunes as they discover the impact others can have on their own lives.

Yoo Ah-in plays Wan-deuk, a poor and rebellious youth who lives with his hunch-backed father. His father (played by Park Soo-young) struggles to not only to make ends meet, but also to provide Wan-duek with the much-needed parental guidance during his formative teenage years. In the same neighbourhood as Wan-deuk, in fact just a rice-throw away, lives his homeroom teacher Dong-joo (Kim Yun-seok), a stubborn and extraverted individual whose questionable teacher methods prove to be just the right influence Wan-deuk needs to get him back on track.

"Punch" orientates itself around some rather depressing individuals, their lives seem to be a little off-track and lacking a sense of togetherness. The film does contain themes of multiculturalism and foriegners' acceptance into Korean society, but the bigger message here is one of community and the helping hand that can come from unexpected places. Characters, such as our hero Wan-duek, have voids in their lives that they are struggling or unable to fill by themselves. As the film progresses, barriers are broken down and new bridges are raised as each character is given hope in their pursuit of fulfilment and happiness.

The film finds a beautiful balance between its melancholic beginnings and its feel-good conclusion. Balance, again, is what make the cogs turn smoothly here because it would have been all too easy to over-saturated either ends of the film with a heavy-hand dose of melodrama. Instead, the choices made in setting up events were finely tuned and avoided sucking the viewer into a sorrowful state of guilt and pity. The film's denouement was equally fitting, pulled together more so by the characters continuing to be themselves, instead of transformed individuals that over-stretched from their intial presentation. By this I mean that although the characters have indeed grown, the growth we witness is one rooted in their relationship to others, rather than being purely being internal. Togetherness is what has transformed them and it is the comfort and happiness from that that marks their growth.

The film is somewhat carried by the brilliant performance of Kim Yun-seok. His demeanour and presence on screen is wonderfully whimsical and quirky, flooding each of his scenes with laughter, thought, and an utter appreciation for his efforts within each frame. Just like his role in "The Chaser", Kim Yun-seok seems to have been born for this role as each line and action is naturally delivered, giving him a nonchalant attitude that dissolves any suggestion that he is, in fact, acting. His young co-star pulls off his role with confidence too, offering up a more contemplative tone and a sort of despondent humour that accents Kim Yun-seok's character well. This is a character-driven narrative and the cast really shined on delivery beat after beat of timely humour, thoughtfulness, and a contemplative mood.

"Punch" strongly reminded me of "Sunny - 2010" as although the film contains some gloomy and depressing subject matter, it did not let that define the film as a whole. I talk here about positivity and optimism in Korea cinema, and the fact that films like these are succeeding is a great sign for the industry. Lee Han has tackled this adaptation with deft hands and with them he has crafted a piece of cinema that will no doubt speak to not just Korean audiences but the international community as well.

-C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)


Q&A for "Punch" took place after a screening of the movie at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival on October 10, 2011. Appearing as speaker is the movie's director Lee Han. AsianMediaWiki editor Ki Mun was there and transcribed/translated the session. The original page can be viewed here.

Lee Han - Hello, I am Lee Han, the director of "Punch". Nice to meet you. Now, I am more nervous than the movie's preview screening. People who attend film festivals tend to be more ardent fans of movies than general movie audience goers. I hope you have had a good time watching my film.

Moderator - This is your fourth feature film. "Punch" is based on a very famous novel. I think you might have felt a lot of pressure because of this and how to bring such a good novel into movie form. Could you briefly explain to us the process from planning to filming to it's release?

Lee Han - "Punch" is based on the novel "Wan-Deuk Yi" by Kim Ryeo-Ryung. One of the main strengths of the novel is its depiction of dark characters and depressing setting in a bright manner. I was attracted to that. I did feel burdened in making a movie version of this novel. When we were writing the adaptation we tried adding a lot of things to the screenplay, but it didn't come out better than the novel. We ended up adhering more faithfully to the novel and just adding cinematic touches.

Moderator - How long did filming take?

Lee Han - Filming began February, 2011 and finished in May. About 2 and a half months. Is that right? No, it took about 3 months.

Audience Question - I read the novel "Wan-Deuk Yi". In the movie there is Ho-Jung who lived with her brother and was the love interest of Dong Joo. She wasn't in the original novel. What made you add her character into the movie? Also, in the end credits I saw "the late" added in front of film crew member Kim Yong-Sam. Could you explain what happened to him?

Lee Han - Ho-Jung is the only character that was not from the original novel. I agonized a bit on finding a way in which the audience would feel closer to high school teacher Dong-Joo. I then thought of love. The most universal thing is love. I felt people would feel closer to him if he falls in love. After that, we wrote the character Ho-Jung into the movie. About the late Kim Yong-Sam. After we finished filming, Kim Yong-Sam went back to his regular job. He got into an accident and died. It was so sad.

Audience Question - After I read that Kim Yun-seok and Yoo Ah-in were cast for the movie, I read the novel "Wan-Deuk Yi". I think Kim Yun-seok and Yoo Ah-in are perfect for their characters. How did you cast these two actors?

Lee Han - In the case of Kim Yun-seok, when we were in the process of writing the movie adaptation, he became our first choice for Dong-Joon. The writers and all the staff members wanted Kim Yun-seok. We gave Kim Yun-seok the screenplay and, fortunately for us, he said yes. In the case of Yoo Ah-in, we conducted many auditions involving actors his age and younger. We came to the conclusion that Yoo Ah-in was the most suited to play Wan-Deuk.

Moderator - You have worked with some of the most popular and talented actors and actresses in your previous films. In fact, it is quite difficult to cast first choice actors for a particular role. What attractions do you think your movies hold?

Lee Han - I don't know. Maybe I look nice? I respect the opinions of actors and actress a lot. There might be some differences of opinion between what I think and what the actor thinks, but as long their feelings are not that different from the main direction of the movie, I accept their opinions. I think I am just lucky.

Audience Question - There are problems occurring overseas in multicultural countries. What message do you want to deliver on this topic?

Lee Han - In fact, reporters say "Punch" is a movie about multiculturalism. I feel burdened a bit with that, because I didn't deal with that issue deeply. Just, while reading the novel and shooting the movie, I hoped people would feel some of the viewpoints of immigrants intimately. I feel those people are separated from us. I think the important things are hanging around, getting intimate, seeing each other and talking to each other, rather than being separated from immigrants.

Audience Question - In the movie, were those actors really immigrants or just actors?

Lee Han - Jasmine Lee, who played Wan-Deuk's mother, came from the Philippines. She also has a son Wan-Deuk's age. The person who played Hassan married a Korean woman and works at LG Electronics.

Audience Question - What made you decide to make the novel into a movie?

Lee Han - The novel is fun. While reading the novel I laughed and became touched. I couldn't feel anything for a while after finishing the novel. About 30 minutes or an hour later I could understand little-by-little what the writer wanted to say. A long time ago, I used to live in an area like Wan-Deuk's neighborhood. The novel reminded me of the people from that time. This isn't just a light novel, so I wanted to make the novel into a movie.

Audience Question - Tell us which scene you like most and some memorable episodes while shooting the film.

Lee Han - The scene that I like the most is the one of Wan-Deuk eating bread, while sitting outside of his rooftop apartment and looking over his neighborhood. At first, I wanted that scene in the beginning of the movie, but other staff members stopped me from doing this, because they told me the movie would be gloomy. I think that scene shows everything about Wan-Deuk. Memorable episodes .... it's hard to say. Aha, I was surprised by Yoo Ah-in's poor athletic abilities. He was good with running, throwing a ball, but not kicking. At first, I was really worried about this, but Yoo Ah-in worked very hard. His sleeping pattern used to be staying up until dawn and then sleeping through the afternoon. Yoo Ah-in completely changed that. He woke up early in the morning and received training. Later, a martial arts director told me that Yoo Ah-in was very determined. Later, I was surprised by Yoo Ah-in. He received training for about 2 or 3 months. I would like to say thanks to Yoo Ah-in. While he was training I was unable to go and see him. He got a little huffy over that.

Audience Question - Wan-Deuk's neighborhood is located in a high area. I would think for the film crew it would be difficult to carry all their heavy equipment and also for the actors and actresses. How did you deal with that?

Lee Han - Fortunately, behind the shooting site there is an elementary school. We could get to the elementary school by car. It was harder than other shooting sites. The area didn't have big restaurants to accommodate all of us. When we wanted to eat, we had to walk down. It took time to go from and get to the shooting site. Even though we ate, we got hungry soon after from walking so much.

Audience Question - Many immigrants are shown in the movie. Tell us about them or any memorable incidents involving those actors. Also, Yoo Ah-in mentioned on a program that he got mad because nobody seemed to care about him while he received kickboxing training by himself. How did you soothe him?

Audience Question - Jasmine Lee, who played Wan-Deuk's mother, has a sad story. Her husband died to save their daughter's life. Afterwards, Jasmine Lee had to raise her children by herself. She is very firm and brave. About Yoo Ah-in, I was very busy at the time, so I couldn't go see him. I think he understood that.

Audience Question - I read the novel "Wan-Deuk Yi" after hearing it would be turned in a movie. There's lots of comic books and novels that are adapted into movies. Fans of the original work can be quite demanding. In my case, I enjoyed this movie. I think you as the director might feel pressure from this?

Lee Han - In fact, before shooting, I agonized a lot of over this. Once we began filming, I didn't have time to worry about it as much. I was too busy filming the movie. Before shooting and until writing the final scenario, everyone involved in making the movie agonized a lot over this.