Wan-deuk is a lonely teenager. He lives in a beaten down tenement complex with his father, a professional clown who has to do more and more traveling in order to make enough money to keep food on the table. Wan-deuk ends up falling under the care of his teacher Dong-ju, and with Dong-ju's help, Wan-deuk is able to grow up.
"Punch" has a real coziness to it- I don't mean in the heartwarming "coming of age" way, but rather that everything about the movie is really cramped. Wan-deuk lives in an apartment that's about what you'd expect could be afforded on a street clown's salary. At multiple points in the movie there are shouting matches between buildings where people are demanding that everyone else be quiet. It's a stressful place to live, and it's easy to see why Wan-deuk is slightly unbalanced.
And yet, things get better. Dong-ju proves to be a very positive influence on Wan-deuk, who starts branching out more and more to other people and being a bit less hostile. Even though Wan-Deuk has a lot of pent-up rage, as the movie goes on he realizes that this is mostly adolescent ambivalence. He really does have genuine value as a person- just the same as he has flaws, which he must learn to control and correct.
Indeed, even though at first it seems like the neighborhood he lives in is the source of Wan-deuk's problems, as time goes on and he tries to be a little more open-hearted it soon becomes clear that plenty of the people around are perfectly nice. At a church he ends up meeting an Indian man who, in addition to speaking excellent Korean, has some surprisingly tangible advice on how Wan-deuk can improve his situation in life without making enemies.
That's another big part of the "Punch"'s charm- no real villains. There are certainly characters who seem like they could be menacing, given our limited information about them, but when Wan-deuk and his teacher actually go about trying to talk to these people even they have reasonably sympathetic motives. And they are willing to play nice, given the right opportunity.
A certain humanity rings true throughout "Punch" that's extremely welcoming for anyone who's had to take an introspective look at their teen years. The living situation is never really romanticized- at the end of the movie everyone is still relatively poor. But by sticking together and watching out for each other, pretty much every character is able to find a happy equilibrium. While coming-of-age stories usually focus on "finding yourself", "Punch" does a great job showing how important it is to find other people, too.
I was also extremely impressed with the way "Punch" handled racial issues. Minorities make up less than one percent of the population in South Korea, and the stories of these low-class workers (as opposed to more well-to-do expat teachers) are seldom discussed. I was heartened to find that, even in the face of questionable decisions, the minority characters are treated with the same warmth, humanity, and forgiveness that affects everyone else. It all just goes that this movie really is dedicated to its basic message as to the importance of knowing and trusting people, even if they're different.
"Punch" was able to chart #4 overall in South Korea in 2011 in spite of low expectations. Personally, I'm not surprised. "Punch" is a hopeful, uplifting film that achieves this message without overglamorous successes or comically debilitating illnesses. For that, its good word of mouth is well deserved.
Review by William Schwartz. William Schwartz is an American currently living in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he studies Korean and themes in Korean media.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from YESASIA
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Punch""
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