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by Jay Seaver

"Not the sort of inspirational teacher most students would choose."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: From the name it's been given in English, "Punch", you might expect "Won-deuk-i" to be an inspirational sports movie, and it's got some of that in the later reels. In reality, it's actually something closer to an inspirational teacher movie, though few of those are ever this funny without becoming outright self-parody.

Doh Won-deuk (Yoo Ah-in) is a bit of an at-risk kid: His grades are low and his family is poor, and things are only going to get tighter now that the cabaret where his hunchbacked father Gak-sul (Park Soo-young) and somewhat slow "uncle" Min-goo (Kim Young-jae) dance is closing down. So Won-deuk gets into fights and gets singled out in class by teacher Lee Dong-joo (Kim Yun-seok), and it doesn't end when school's out - Dong-joo lives in the same crappy neighborhood as Won-deuk, practically next door, and continues haranguing his student late into the night. So it's not really a surprise that Won-deuk prays for Dong-joo to die, and that's before the latest way Dong-joo sticks his nose into Won-deuk's business: Introducing the boy to his mother Sook-hee (Jasmine Lee), a Filipina immigrant he's never known.

There's also Chung Yoon-ha (Kang Byul), the class's studious-but-cute girl; a crabby neighbor (Kim Sang-ho); a writer of existential martial arts novels (Park Hyo-joo); some jail time; and, yes, the chance for Won-deuk to channel some of his hostility via kickboxing. There are a lot of episodes to this movie's episodic structure, but to the credit of director Lee Han, it seldom feels meandering, even when the screenplay by Kim Dong-woo (based on Kim Ryeo-ryeong's novel) is kind of piling stuff on as opposed to letting one event lead to another. Part of why that works is that it's a rare individual scene that goes on too long, allowing them to pack a lot of events into a bit under two hours. The film is also presented as much as a comedy as anything else, which smooths things over; it's easier for comedies to move onto the next thing than dramas.

What makes this run most smoothly is the chemistry between Yoo Ah-in and Kim Yun-seok; it's not a completely original student-teacher dynamic, but it's a highly entertaining one. "Dung-zoo", as the students call him, is kind of pushy and irritating even after the point where it's clear he's trying to help Won-deuk, and we see enough of him interacting with the world at large to see that this isn't just a clever plan to get the most out of his students, but the way he is. Won-deuk has a chip on his shoulder just as likely to emerge as whininess as aggression. The two never really seem to become fond of each other, but Yoo and Kim get to the point where they can trade sarcastic jibes, funny banter that isn't exactly respect but is at least something halfway there.

They're surrounded by other interesting characters, too. Jasmine Lee is quietly impressive as Sook-hee; her pained expression tells how being an immigrant in a fairly homogeneous society like South Korea wears one down even without her shame at not being part of Won-deuk's life, but she's able to thread the needle between being a victim and being defined by that one decision. Similarly, Park Soo-young balances the big heart in Gak-sul's bent body with just enough rigidity to make his half of that decision seem in-character. Not everyone's character is so heavy, though; while Kim Young-jae does a nice job of making Min-goo kind of humorously oblivious without making the audience feel bad about laughing at him, Kim Sang-ho, Park Hyo-joo, and Kang Byul are all different kinds of funny foils.

Lee Han knows what he's doing here pretty well; while he and Kim Dong-woo do tend toward reassuring the audience that Won-deuk is really a good kid rather than than someone in dire need of rescuing, it works. It keeps the audience from laughing at the characters' misfortunes, and allows them to make Punch a genuinely funny movie, going from crude (Kim Sang-ho's character can swear impressively at the drop of a hat) to sweet without trouble. There's a welcome level of self-awareness in how the characters know they're not the only ones with problems and in how the filmmakers know just how long to follow a well-worn path before veering in another direction (though they happily stop short of self-parody).

It never veers so far off as to stop being a neglected student/unconventional teacher movie, but it's one that's clever in the details even beyond its fun main pairing. It always finds a way to avoid being sappy, even when the audience really wouldn't have minded.

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originally posted: 08/14/12 09:38:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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  DVD: 12-Mar-2013



Directed by
  Lee Han

Written by
  Dong-woo Kim
  Yeo-ryung Kim

  Ah-in Yoo
  Yun-seok Kim
  Su-young Park
  Yeong-jae Kim

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