January 12, 2014

Punch: Family Drama Just for Kicks

I'm predisposed to like a coming-of-age movie like Lee Han's Punch. Wan-deuk's father (Park Su-young) is a hunchbacked dwarf who likes to dance; his uncle (Kim Young-jae), a man-child who acts like a 10-year-old; his mother (Jasmine), a Filipino waitress with self-esteem issues; his homeroom teacher (Kim Yun-seok), a tough-love, community activist with a drinking problem. Growing up poor, or at best financially challenged, I too was surrounded by my own quirky extended family who, though not as colorful on the surface, were actually weird enough in their own ways for the circus-realist Punch to resonate with me on a very personal level. So much so that I'm now sitting here wondering if I'd be happier -- or at least more grounded -- today as an adult if someone had encouraged me to take martial arts to get out all my teenage frustrations when I too was 17. You could say that's why my father got me to join the Northwood High wrestling team when I was a sophomore but I didn't want to grapple so much as strike. I think, like Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), I would've found greater satisfaction in kickboxing as a way to channel the rage that comes with feeling like an oddball -- Correction: Of being an oddball -- at a time when conformity is at its most crushing.

Playing the central soul-searcher, Yoo does a great job conveying his character's bewilderment at the inconsistencies of the grown-up world while discovering his own insistence to take a path not entirely delineated by those around him. (Which isn't to say he's above accepting a little guidance on occasion.) Alternately tremulous and slack-jawed, his every-teen isn't smarter than his elders; he's just electrically aware of each individualized reality. It's as if Lee and his screenwriter Kim Dong-woo aren't waxing nostalgic about adolescence as "the time before hypocrisy" so much as they're acknowledging it as an earlier time as violently chaotic as adulthood. It's an awareness available to re-experience at any time. I left Punch reconnected to mine.

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