August 26, 2012

Punch Lady: Domestic Violence Becomes a Martial Arts Match

Personally, I was hardly expecting Punch Lady, a movie about an abused wife who challenges her homicidal/pro martial-artist husband to fight in the ring, to be a laugh-out-loud comedy. And yet that's really what Kyang Hyo-jin's movie is. Which isn't to say the violent scenes in which mousy Ha-eun (To Ji-won) gets pummeled by her psychotic spouse Joo-chang (Park Sang-uk) aren't horrific. They are. As is the climactic face-off during which the two throw punches/kicks in a packed arena broadcasting nationwide. But what transpires between is loaded with silly bits that never feel inappropriate, a miracle of sorts to be honest. How'd that happen?

Part of Punch Lady's ability to stay funny so much of the time can be attributed to the central theme being neither revenge nor justice. Kyang's screenplay is really about self-discovery instead. Which isn't the same as self-transformation by the way. Again, unexpectedly, Ha-eun doesn't change from timid housewife to unstoppable fighting machine. When she enters the ring, she still flinches whenever her husband approaches. All she has are a few key moves fueled by rage. There's actually an amazing moment mid-fight when she stops just to let out a few blood-curdling screams. These are the screams of a woman furious at being treated as less than human, as being part of a legacy of abuse that dates back to her mother (who was beat by her father) and now could continue through her daughter (already a target for Joo-chang's abuse).

Ha-eun's screams jar you back to the larger reality in which women can often be treated as second-class citizens and in which spousal abuse remains a topic people still don't like to talk about first- or second-hand. You could call Punch Lady a feminist comedy if you wanted to but I'm not so sure whether it holds up on that count. Her coach Soo-hyeon (Son Hyeon-ju) is positioned as a romantic figure because he wants to be her protector, even as his mock mastery of moves is simply his mimickry of what he learned the night before at a nearby gym. Enlightened as I might be and try as I might, I couldn't resist cackling at that first training montage which isn't a feel-good, get-tough sweatfest so much as it's a comical sendup of the masochism of pushing yourself to the limit and the sadism that accompanies helping someone else do the same. And only a misogynist wouldn't love her triumphant punches in the final round.

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