As part of the Discovery Film Festival the DCA screened Punch (Wan-Deuk-I), directed by Lee Han. The film was a phenomenal success in South Korea, selling around five million tickets during its box office run. Based on the novel Wandeuk (2008) by Kim Ryeo-Ryung, the story revolves around 17 year old Doh Wan-Deuk (played by Yoo Ah-In) who lives in a poor area of Seoul with his hunch-backed father, an unemployed tap dancer. Wan-Deuk does not have it easy. In addition to living on food aid, being bottom of his class and being treated as an outsider by his classmates, he is constantly harassed by his teacher Lee Dong-Joo (played by Kim Yun-Seok, who won best actor in the Korean Best Film Awards for this role), who unfortunately also happens to be his next door neighbour. It is no wonder that the only way he can cope with this situation is to throw punches at those who aggravate him.
While scenes in the film can be heart-breaking at times, Punch is not all about tragedy or hardship, as director Lee includes an aspect of comedy in this portrayal of hard times. Wan-Deuk lives in a rundown apartment with cramped living space and nosy neighbours; yet one cannot help but laugh at Wan-Deuk’s absurd neighbour who swears and shouts obscenities when he is woken by others. The film takes a positive turn when Lee turns out to be not as horrible as he initially appeared, helping Wan-Deuk when his mother, a Filipina immigrant who abandoned him as a baby, suddenly returns. Wan-Deuk’s teacher also encourages him to take up kick-boxing, managing to divert his aggressive energy into this challenging sport.
The film serves as a social commentary, showing a glimpse of contemporary Korean school life, the pressures of living in poverty, and Korean attitudes towards immigrants and disability. What adds to the film’s social conscience and realism is the fact that the actors that were cast are also involved in such social matters themselves. Most impressively, the Filipina actress Jasmine Lee, who plays Wan-Deuk’s mother, is in fact the secretary general of Waterdrop, a charity she formed to raise awareness about the hardships experienced by migrant women. Her performance in the film helped increase awareness of the plight of immigrants living in Korea and to add recognition to the variety of support services available for them. Because of these activities, Jasmine Lee recently became the first Filipina to win a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly.
The performance of each individual actor in Punch feels genuine, despite the melodramatic tendencies that the film’s plot might carry. The language barrier (the film is entirely in South Korean accompanied by English subtitles) does not disrupt the flow of the story as emotions and thoughts are portrayed clearly, showing the director and the cast’s ability to work together as a perfect ensemble. There is no conventional happy ending to Punch; Wan-Deuk does not emerge an ultimate kick-boxing champion, nor does his father suddenly become rich. Nevertheless, things are looking up for the family at the close of the film, leaving the audience with a sense of hope and a better grasp of humanity and the advantages of multiculturalism. Overall, the film is a delight to watch, and will hopefully bring knowledge and curiosity about South Korean culture beyond PSY’s “Gangnam Style”.