Martial arts trainers fight comic battle

When a movie title is too long or unnecessarily repetitive, there are two options. First, pretend there's no title and move swiftly to the plot. Second, devote the bulk of your article describing, explaining and analyzing the title so that readers forget what they are actually reading.

Either way, the point is unlikely to be made for Taewon Entertainment, known for releasing unabashed gangster-infested comedy around the national holidays. Yes, there is another big holiday coming - Lunar New Year's Day - and Taewon's festive mood is reflected in the movie's mysteriously long title: "Kim Kwan-jang vs. Kim Kwan-jang vs. Kim Kwan-jang" ("Three Kims").

The Three Kims are different characters but share the same name. The three-way competition, therefore, is predictable but director Park Seong-gyoon does not start with three figures fighting to death from the beginning.

Instead, two characters are locked in a battle. The first Kim (Shin Hyun-joon) runs a private Taekwondo martial art institute. But don't expect a sophisticated master who knows how to throw artful kicks. He is preoccupied with petty subjects, often whining about nothing, and asks his young son to cook their meals. The second Kim (Choi Sung-guk) specializes in fencing and competes with the first Kim to attract more kids in a small, rural town. The second Kim's hobby is to play a coin-operated video game with one of the children in the village, and when he is losing the game, Kim never hesitates to cheat - a characteristic that might border on child molestation, but since this is an explicit comedy, he simples gets away with his tricks all the time.

There is another factor that heightens the competition between the two Kims. Both Kims are keen to win the heart of a beautiful woman (Oh Seung-hyun), who is a daughter of the Chinese restaurant owner.

The childish competition takes an embarrassing turn when a third player joins the fray. A young and good-looking kung fu master with the same name (Kwon Oh-jung) sets up his own private martial art institute, causing the other two Kims a great deal of consternation.

The third Kim exhibits greater martial art prowess as compared to the first and second Kims, and even plays a Beethoven sonata, a talent that impresses the Chinese restaurant beauty and depresses the other two martial art masters.

Once the film moves to the three-way competition, not only comic relief but also martial art acts are thrown together in a way that meets more or less the expectations of the viewers. The most impressive act comes from Kwon, who has ventured out to practice relatively high-level martial acts himself and his newly acquired skills deserve credits.

Shin Hyun-joon, a veteran actor, is attempting to change his image. He is no stranger in gangster comedy but he is trying to create a new persona - a character who looks dumb and yet holds the ultimate key to resolving the overall conflict.

Choi Sung-guk, meanwhile, sticks to his usual style. He tries to keep his cool while confronted with various situations, which is funny for those who understand the underlying comic message.

The martial art comedy, however, begins to lose its luster when a new element is incorporated into the three-way competition. A gangster group is tipped off about a land development program involving the small village and sends off three goons to purchase the land discreetly and make big bucks when the development plan is actually implemented.

The real estate subplot is pertinent to the country's longstanding obsession with land speculation. It is also highly convenient that the gangsters play the baddie at this point, largely because the Three Kims urgently need some evil counterparts to prove their righteousness.

By throwing a land development factor into the small town infighting, however, director Park turns the comic film into a cheap social critique, which is not exactly what comic film fans want, especially during the New Year's holiday season.

By Yang Sung-jin