[HanCinema's Film Review] "Shark: The Beginning"
By William Schwartz | Published on
Do-hyeon (played by Wi Ha-jun) is a champion teenage martial artist who has a very bad day. His family is murdered, and the men responsible die shortly thereafter by his hand. Do-hyeon accepts his legal punishment, and lives quietly in prison. Woo-sol (played by Kim Min-seok) is a very different kind of teenager, bookish and bullied. When Woo-sol disfigures his tormentor Seok-chan (played by Jung Won-chang), he too goes to prison, struggling to cope with his own guilt and his new life.
The basic narrative arc of "Shark: The Beginning" is easy enough to grasp. Do-hyeon teaches Woo-sol how to fight. The central question elevating "Shark: The Beginning" from a typical low-budget prison movie is just...why? In the immediate sense, of course, Woo-sol needs to learn martial arts to defend himself from the other teen prisoners who he has offended. But Woo-sol isn't motivated by a desire to lead the prison hierarchy. And that's not why Do-hyeon teaches him martial arts either.
Rather, what Woo-sol needs is self-esteem and self-discipline. Woo-sol has lived his whole life in a world of toxic masculinity, where young men torture each other not out of malice, but to assert dominance. As he learns how to fight, Woo-sol discovers a new form of masculinity. He gains the inner strength to endure tremendous pain. He finds a clarity of purpose. And he earns the confidence to inspire people with that vision, by proving he is no less a man for wanting to build a better world for everyone, not just himself.
"Shark: The Beginning" also features a storyline with Seong-chan, where he comes to his own in a more destructive hegemony. Though a bit light in content, this parallel narrative notes that for the more idealistic martial arts that Woo-sol learns, violence is still violence. We see Woo-sol make gradual progress in prison because it's a closed environment. As is noted, it's not really to anyone's benefit to fight, save for the sake of establishing a pecking order. Do they really just want to fight forever, or do they want to become adults with greater purpose?
I did have to remind myself with some frequency that our characters are indeed all high school age. Save for Kim Min-seok no one really looks like a teenager. Cha Yup and Shin Min-jae are especially pushing it, as the two big guys are obviously in their thirties. Still, they get the job done as intimidating figures in the prison who have to project menace with their manner as much as with their fists.
While "Shark: The Beginning" is principally an emotional journey, with surprising weight given to simple montage sequences, it also functions admirably well as a standard prison action film. The movie climaxes with three big fight scenes that are as much about Woo-sol taking punches as giving them out. Woo-sol was bullied because he was scared of being hurt. He can only break free of that fear by accepting pain as a part of life and choosing his battles.
Review by William Schwartz
"Shark: The Beginning" is directed by Chae Yeo-joon, and features Kim Min-seok, Wi Ha-jun, Jung Won-chang, Lee Jae-kyoon, Bae Myung-jin, Lee Jung-hyun-I. Release date in Korea: 2021/06/17.
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea from 2011 to 2021. He is currently located in the Portland metropolitan area. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org, and is open to requests for content in future articles.