If you are a South Korean and you were relatively lucky while going through ruthless South Korean education system, you probably had at least one teacher who ‘bothered’ you a lot in your school days. He had a lot of interest in you, and he might make you crazy because he made no secret about that in front of your classmates and your family. I knew that too well. Several teachers at my middle school saw that I was an oddball among students, and they cared about me a little bit more than other students. Some of them actually visited my parents just because they lived near my home.
To a high school student named Wan-deuk(Yoo Ah-in), the hero of South Korean coming-of-age drama “Punch”(2011), his teacher Dong-joo(Kim Yoon-seok), or Dung-joo as Wan-deuk called, looks like a formidable nemesis who will never go away from his life. Don-joo is always near him whether it is at the school or outside the school. At the school, with lots of banters, Doo-joo blatantly mentions about Wan-deuk’s poor household or low grade in front of Wan-deuk’s classmates – much to Wan-deuk’s humiliation. Wan-deuk is not so free from Dong-joo even at his rooftop home, because he lives right next to his home. No wonder Wan-deuk goes to the church nearby and prays to the higher existence living somewhere above the sky to give his annoying enemy eternal peace for his peace of mind.
However, sadly, his pray remains unanswered. The more he resists, the more Dong-joo intrudes upon Wan-deuk’s family life, which is the emblem of the lower class life in South Korean. Since his Filipino mother(Jasmine Lee) left them a long time ago, Wan-deuk has lived with his father and his ‘uncle’ Min-goo. Wan-deuk’s father has been ridiculed for being short(in the book, he is more like a dwarf, but Park Soo-yong is not the shortest actor in the movie and he is certainly taller than Peter Dinklage). His workplace, a cabaret where he has worked as a dancer, is recently closed, so Wan-deuk’s father tries to find a way to make a living with a mentally deficient Min-goo(Kim Yeong-jae), but, in the society not so kind to the weak and poor, it is not easy for them to do that.
This may sound gloomy to you, but the movie is a lighthearted tale from the beginning in spite of several grim subjects hanging around the story. Though he is not exemplary as “the teacher of my life”, it is clear that Dong-joo likes his students despite his seemingly casual and occasionally crass behavior to the students. He especially cares about Wan-deuk, and, thanks to Kim Yoon-seok’s amusing performance, we instantly sense that Dong-joo will be the teacher Wan-deuk can lean on no matter how much he annoys Wan-deuk everyday.
The movie is rather free from the conventions we expect from this kind of film. Above all, Dong-joo does not change the Wan-deuk’s life much. Wan-deuk grudgingly accepts Dong-joo as the part of his daily life, but their relationship is still a love/hate relationship except becoming more endearing a little than before. At Dong-joo’s recommendation, Wan-deuk, who is a notorious rough boy at his school, goes to the gym for learning kickboxing, but, although he has indeed some talent, the sport does not dramatically change his life. The movie is grounded well on reality; this is not the one where a guy suddenly realizes his terrific talent hidden inside him and then wins all the way to the championship in a glorious climax.
But we feel Wan-deuk’s life getting a little better with the directions than before, while watching the characters roll around together inside its story. Rather than following the conventional plot, the movie leisurely strolls around small, nice moments from the interactions between characters. There is a foul-mouthed neighbor who is sick of the frequent loud exchanges between Wan-deuk and Dong-joo outside, and his complain made the audience laugh every time. He has a sister who live with him(she writes ‘existential martial art fantasy novel’), and she is pretty enough to draw Dong-joo’s attention – that leads to several humorous moments in the movie.
Meanwhile, Wan-deuk also gets intimated with one of the girls in the school after some cruel prank on her done by other students. She is No. 1 overachiever in the class, and he is No.1 underachiever in the class. How can that be possible? I don’t know, but it is more than the opposites being attracted to each other; he is nice to her, and so is she to him.
Besides all these happenings around them, the dynamic relationship between Wan-deuk and Dong-joo remains as the center of the movie, and the chemistry between Kim Yoon-seok and Yoo Ah-in is enjoyable to watch – they do not have tell us directly about the small changes inside their relationship while never stepping out of what they are. Yoo Ah-in is a little too tame as a rebellious teenager, but he has enough delinquent naivety as a problematic high school student instead. He has nice scenes involved with his awkward reconnecting with his Filipino mother who comes back to his life, and he quietly conveys to us conflicted emotions inside his character.
Opposite to Yoo Ah-in, Kim Yoon-seok proves again he is one of the most entertaining performers we have in South Korea. While capable of being ruthless as shown in “The Chaser”(2008) or “The Yellow Sea”(2010), he also can be a funny guy with his gruff charm reminiscent of that of Walter Matthau. Dong-ju can be insufferable sometimes at least in Wan-deuk’s view, and Kim Yoon-seok mix the human flaws and decency into his complex character so effortlessly that I eventually found him a lot more lovable busybody than I thought. He looks like a lousy, bullying teacher at first, but he is a good one; I knew such teachers like him, and I was glad to be taught by them. Besides, he is really passionate about what he does; outside the school, he gets into some problems with the authorities because of the people he tries to help and protect. Dong-ju may be an asshole sometimes, but you will accept him as your asshole.
“Punch” is a funny, pleasant, and energetic coming-of-age drama with interesting people abound in its story. While recognizing the shabby sides at the bottom of South Korean society along with some serious social issues including illegal immigrant workers, the movie balances itself well between drama and comedy with an optimistic note in the end. Wan-deuk learns that Dong-ju is the best and worst thing in his life – who wouldn’t agree to that?