SEOUL, Korea - The latest Korean blockbuster film is a departure from the disaster releases that had been dominating the local box-office since Bong Joon-ho’s "The Host" set an all-time record in 2006. What is even more surprising about the current hit, Lee Han’s Punch (Wandeugi), is that it is nothing like its title at all – closer to an air kiss from a distant lover on a dreamy autumn afternoon.
Yet Punch also partakes of the same elements that marked the disaster-film cycle set off by The Host: it is insistently and daringly populist, and it looks at Korea during an age of global interaction (on which more later). More important for practitioners of film everywhere, it demonstrates the admirable willingness of Korean talents to grapple with the exigencies of genre production, constantly searching for ways to infuse difficult and complex material with accessible treatments.
The manner in which Punch reconfigures melodramatic requisites, for example, exhibits its makers’ expert grasp of the strategies of excess and containment – i.e., one should provide an unusual amount of the genre’s primary element (chills in horror, laughs in comedy, tears in melodrama, sex in pornography, etc.) yet ensure that the narrative eventually returns to a condition of normality in order for the viewer to achieve catharsis and closure.
Surprisingly, the element that Punch elects to overindulge in is the exact opposite of what its genre stipulates. Lee (drawing from a recent popular source novel) provides a series of comic set-ups that serve to subtly foreground the pathos endured by the characters, so that toward the end, when the central tearjerker scene is staged, one could hear even male viewers unable to hold back their sniffles – a smiling-through-tears approach more devastating than what manipulative Hollywood dreck like Titanic, for all their outsize budgets, are able to achieve. The ending, happy but not (yet) triumphant, confirms that although the movie might have masqueraded for the most part as a comedy, it has remained true to its melodramatic ideals.
The plot concerns a street-smart young man, Wan-deuk (the Korean title “Wandeugi” is a jokey variation on his name). Generally well-behaved although unable to control his bouts of rage, Wan-deuk remains devoted to his diminutive hunchback father and struggles to maintain a decent performance in high school.
Unfortunately for him, his teacher, Dong-joo, insists on singling him out in and outside the classroom, and harasses him even at home, since he lives across from the rooftop quarters Wan-deuk shares with his father and “uncle,” a mentally challenged man his father befriended and trained for his dance performances. As a child Wan-deuk used to wander the provincial cabaret where his father tap-danced, but since the father believed that his son will have a better future by studying in Seoul, he decided to move there (near Dong-joo’s place, as it turned out) and earn a meager living by selling trifles at markets outside the city.
The turning point arrives when Dong-joo, also a minister at a church that assists illegal immigrants, discovers that Wan-deuk’s mother is a Filipina who abandoned her family right after weaning her son from breast milk. The news traumatizes Wan-deuk, who already resents Dong-joo seriously enough to pray in church for his teacher’s demise. The process by which the narrative illustrates how these estranged characters manage to accept one another and discover reserves of strength in themselves is enabled by an impressive traversal of the delicate line separating humor from tragedy, without tumbling over into either extreme.
Key to the success of this type of undertaking is the performances. The title character is played by (from the perspective of world cinema) a newcomer, Yoo Ah-in, whose credibility as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager derives from parallel real-life experience as a high-school dropout. The actual lead, however – the character responsible for driving the plot forward – is Dong-joo, played with flourish and acute comic timing by Kim Yun-seok, previously identified with violent, even literally bloody film noirs. The supporting cast – Park Su-young and Kim Yeong-jae as father and “uncle” respectively, and Park Hyo-ju and Kang Byeol as Dong-joo and Wan-deuk’s respective love interests – partake of the same bounteous reserve of colorful representation steeped in what hip-hop artists would describe as dope realness.
Search for Filipina mother
Even a seeming anomaly like the casting of Yoo Ah-in, whose character looks like neither of his parents (and better than both, actually – star-is-born alert, everyone), makes complete sense for people who marry inter-racially as a matter of course – not among Koreans, but among Filipinos. The fact that he is endowed in several other respects adheres to the biological principle, recognized in Philippine culture (and recently being acknowledged in the US), that positive traits tend to emerge more prominently in hybrid offspring.
Yet as mentioned earlier, a successful genre project also requires the curse of containment. In Punch this is brought about in the portrayal of Wan-deuk’s mother, who functions more as cipher than as character, remorseful over her initial abandonment, resolved to make amends to her husband and son, relieved that through them she might finally find some ease over her hardscrabble existence. The rupture in this formulation derives from the fact that the role is essayed by Jasmine Lee, who in real life started as an immigrant wife in Korea but succeeded in becoming a national celebrity after the untimely death of her husband.
The source novel’s character was actually Vietnamese, although the temptation to change her nationality to Filipino was understandable: the Philippines has virtually become an extension of Jeju-do, the primary warm-weather destination for vacationing Koreans, many of whom choose to stay longer (for English training and business investment), sometimes for good. Yet where most other Asian wives would have remained helpless, hampered by differences in both culture and language, the typically Westernized and English-speaking Filipina would have been able to clamber her way up the social ladder one way or another, especially if she’d had the “good education” that Wan-deuk’s father quietly boasted to his son.
A kinder way of responding to this potential shortcoming is by answering that first, gender politics cannot be a national priority in a country that is technically still at war and whose economy lacks a Third World that it can exploit, thus situating its population in a perpetual crisis position even amid its First-World prosperity; and second, a culture whose pre-modern Confucian ideology is even more resolutely patriarchal than its current conservative-Western aspirations has no model for feminist enlightenment anywhere within itself (Indeed, a previous all-time Korean blockbuster, Lee Jun-ik’s The King and the Clown, signifies how deeply misogyny can underlie any well-intentioned queer text.)
Like The Host, Punch compensates in the next best possible way, by presenting its male characters as society’s Other, feminized in relation to the relatively powerful and wealthy majority. It remains then for Korea’s Asian Others – Filipinos and other immigrant populations – to continue demonstrating how and why gender progressivity is not merely ethical, but in fact beneficial and indispensable in strengthening the strands of the social fabric.
The author is Associate Professor for Cultural Studies at Inha University and a member of the Philippine embassy in Korea’s Resource Persons Group. Author of several books, he holds a Ph.D. in Film from New York University and had taught at a number of other institutions including the University of the Philippines, where he was founding Director of the Film Institute.