Wan-deuk is a high school student who is basically a good kid, but who still ends up getting into trouble, partly because he can fight so well. He lives in a cheap rooftop home together with his dwarf father and adopted uncle, one building over from his most hated teacher Dong-joo. Exasperated that he has to endure Dong-joo’s teasing both in class and then again after school, Wan-deuk goes to church and begs God to finish off his nemesis. One day, however, Dong-joo comes to Wan-deuk with an unexpected piece of news: he has located Wan-deuk’s mother, who left home when he was just an infant. On top of this shocking revelation, Dong-joo delivers another jolt: his mother is not Korean.
Punch, based on a best-selling novel by Kim Ryeo-ryeong that was also adapted into a successful stage play, is a loosely-structured story filled with interesting, well-drawn characters. Although a quick glance at its English title and promotional materials might lead you to think it’s one of those “boy takes up a sport and overcomes adversity” dramas, it’s actually not that at all. It’s a film about a diverse group of characters, each of whom might be looked down upon by society in some way, who gradually draw closer and start to understand each other.
The primary relationship in the film is between Wan-deuk and Dong-joo, and director Lee Han’s biggest coup was to pull off perfect casting for this pair. Kim Yoon-seok used to be considered a supporting actor, but in recent years he has racked up an incredible string of hits, including The Chaser (2008), Woochi (2009), The Yellow Sea (2010), and now this film, which sold an outstanding 5.3 million tickets. He portrays Dong-joo as a highly eccentric but persistent teacher who probably fails in all areas except the one that counts most: compassion. The part of Wan-deuk, a boy suddenly facing a crisis of identity on top of the usual challenges of growing up, was taken by rising star Yu Ah-in. Having started his film career in a series of roles in quirky mainstream and indie films including Boys of Tomorrow (2006), Skeletons in the Closet (2007) and Antique (2008), he won over a wide fan base in 2010 in the TV drama Seonggyun-gwan Scandal. Significantly, he never gives the impression of a pretty face temporarily adopting the guise of an outcast — he really inhabits the role, and gives a deeply convincing performance.
If there is a weakness to Punch, it’s that its story is rather loosely formed, and doesn’t come together to deliver the expected “punch” at its climax. But at this point, most viewers won’t mind because they will be feeling such affection for the characters. Not only the lead roles, but also many of the supporting characters are funny and endearing to a surprising degree. Some of the standouts include Kim Sang-ho as a borderline psychotic neighbor, Park Hyo-joo as an aspiring popular novelist, and Jasmine Lee as Wan-deuk’s mother, who can not only act but also speak Korean with a surprising degree of fluency.
Director Lee Han (Lover’s Concerto) has been known up until now as a specialist in love stories, but this change of pace (it’s also the first time he’s worked with someone else’s screenplay) has served him well. Punch sold over 5.3 million tickets to rank as the third best-selling Korean release of 2011, and throughout its long run in theaters it was the one film that everyone was talking about. It’s probably true that the films we remember best after years have gone by are not the most exciting or dramatic stories, but the ones with the most interesting characters. If so, Punch can look forward to a long afterlife.