Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Punch (완득이) – ★★★☆☆

Punch (완득이)

Punch (완득이)

The representation of those outside of ‘mainstream’ culture is often problematic within cinema. While their daily struggles against prejudice and other such conflicts are incredibly compelling, it is easy for protagonists to fall into the ‘pitiable’ category and thus undermine their accomplishments.

Punch (완득이) deftly sidesteps such narrative pitfalls with a wonderfully moving and charming story about those on the fringes of society, one that never patronizes those within and instead focuses on the three-dimensional features and ironies of their lives. In a culture – and national cinema – where physical appearance and financial stability are highly regarded, Punch is a refreshing and comical perspective on oft-ignored contemporary issues.

Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in (유아인) lives a troubled existence, failing at school and perpetually involved in fights. His father (Park Soo-young (박수영), a hunchback, is ridiculed for his appearance yet supports them as a dancer and entertainer with mentally ill ‘uncle’ Min-goo (Kim Yeong-jae (김영재). Yet the real bane of Wan-deuk’s life is his teacher Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석), who takes an active interest in the young man and encourages him to stretch and develop in ways unwanted. But when Wan-deuk’s estranged Filipino mother (Jasmine Lee (이쟈스민) arrives requesting time together, the young man is forced to mature and understand the complexities of those closest to him.

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Punch – an odd title considering the original is the lead protagonist’s name – succinctly and organically explores an array of societal issues without foregrounding any one in particular, nor ramming any ideological message into the audience. Instead, Punch eloquently depicts the story of a young man at the head of a makeshift and dysfunctional family, suffering from the idiosyncrasies of life on the poverty line with charismatic sincerity. Kim Dong-woo (김동우) has crafted a wonderfully character-driven script that makes it virtually impossible not to empathize with Wan-deuk and his coming-of-age story, which director Lee Han (이한) competently brings to life.

What makes Punch such an interesting and unique offering are the variety of characters within and the ways in which they strive to turn what mainstream society considers to be weaknesses into strengths. Wan-deuk is an incredibly conflicted young man; as a young boy he idolized his hunchback father for his dancing ability alongside his mentally ill ‘uncle’, tragically ignorant to the reality of the entertainment being provided. Without a mother figure in his life, Wan-deuk, his hero-turned-ridiculed father and his kind ‘uncle’ form a makeshift family, relying on the charity of others to live. Wan-deuk’s inner turmoil is wonderfully conveyed through his apathetic stance towards life, simultaneously a class clown and violently entering in fights even when outnumbered, making him likable and engaging. Wan-deuk’s teacher, Dong-joo, is a highly charismatic character with his own conflicts yet strives to find and encourage the potential within everyone around him, an unsung hero in a deprived community. Yet the characters only truly align with the introduction of Wan-deuk’s estranged mother, shocking him with her Filipino nationality and desire to reconnect. The cultural problem of importing wives from developing Asian countries has been slowly encroaching Korean national cinema for the past few years, yet none are as three-dimensional, nor approach the situation from the perspective of the women themselves, as within Punch. The focus on such disparate characters, and the humanity they exhibit and discover as they come together, is undoubtedly what makes the film is so entertaining and life-affirming.

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk's life more difficult

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk’s life more difficult

Yoo Ah-in gives a restrained performance as Wan-deuk, making the character likable with his irregular combination of dumb-struck apathy and belligerence. In lesser hands the role could have disintegrated into melodrama or portray his frustrations as disdainful, yet Yoo Ah-in balances the characterization well.

Yet by far the most engaging, comedic, and heart-warming protagonist is that of teacher Dong-joo, played by Kim Yoon-seok. The actor is wonderful in portraying the modest educator, doing so with sincerity, conviction, and with a great sense of comedic timing. His unorthodox style of teaching and encouraging students is humorous as well as unconventional, prompting his students to expand when others have given up. As such, Kim Yoon-seok forges his role into the soul of the film, with each layer of information revealed making him increasingly more charismatic and interesting.

If Dong-joo is the heart of the film then Wan-deuk’s mother, performed by Jasmine Lee, is the heart. Her introduction within the narrative is the catalyst for the disparate characters to bond together, and Jasmine Lee is excellent in conveying the sincerity of a mother wishing to reconnect with the son she abandoned. The actress performs the role with sincerity and integrity, forging sympathy with audiences yet never descends into pity, and her modesty and plight acutely reflects the difficulties faced by imported wives.

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Verdict:

Punch is a charming and heart-warming film about those on outside of ‘mainstream’ society and culture, made compelling by the wonderful characterization within. While the film may not push boundaries, the character-driven script features such an array of protagonists, issues and comedic idiosyncrasies that Punch becomes unique in its alternative perspective on a familial drama, and is highly entertaining.

★★★☆☆

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Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Moby Dick (모비딕) – ★★★☆☆

Moby Dick (모비딕)

Moby Dick (모비딕)

Conspiracy theory films, and the inherent shadowy figures that operate within and/or behind the government, are a fun and exhilarating sub-genre that express audience distrust of institutions as well as emphasizing their impotency. They also have an uncanny knack for tapping into social anxieties. With the Bourne series (2002-2007) the post-9/11 ‘Patriot Act’ was vehemently scrutinized, as the shadow operatives abused the use of satellites and phones in targeting alleged terrorists. Similarly Enemy of the State (1998) portrayed senior members of the NSA murdering senators and civilians alike to expand their power base and withhold information.

Moby Dick (모비딕) is concerned with the conspiracy theories that plague the South Korean government, a premise with huge potential due to the often tumultuous relationship with the North. However, due to the bland and uneven narrative and direction, central protagonists that lack charisma or intelligence, and most importantly the distinct lack of threat posed by the shadow organisation, Moby Dick largely fails.

Lee Bang-woo  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is a newspaper reporter constantly waiting for the next big scoop in order to become renowned. When a bridge explodes and the government quickly blames the incident on North Korean spies, Bang-woo decides to visit the scene and bribes his informant for extra details. Shortly thereafter Bang-woo is visited by his young friend Yoon Hyeok (Jin Goo (진구), on the run for desertion, carrying a bag full of official documents and disks. Examining the paraphernalia Bang-woo realises there’s much more to the explosion, and other mysterious events, then previously thought and puts together a team of reporters – polite rival Son Jin-gi  (Kim Sang-ho (김상호) and code cracker Seong Hyo-gwan  (Kim Min-hee (김민희) – to uncover the secrets of the shadow government organisation whose symbol is ‘Moby Dick’.

Bang-woo begins to understand that other forces are at work

Bang-woo begins to understand that other forces are at work

Moby Dick is directed by Park In-je (박인제) competently, and the potential of the notion of a shadow government has incredible potential for a thrilling, gritty tale of political espionage. However the  narrative is often in complete disarray and lacking in focus that any sense of compulsion, and worse still immediacy, are completely lost. The opening shot of Moby Dick is the televisual image displayed from a CCTV camera as a bridge explodes; this in itself forces audience detachment from the severity of the cataclysmic event as the impact and ramifications are unseen, and considering it is the catalyst for the entire film is a rather odd form of representation. What follows is a supremely dull first act as protagonists are introduced sporadically and lacking in motivation. Bang-woo is a woefully underdeveloped protagonist who routinely displays naivety and idiocy, and aside from curiosity and selfish desire has little motivation for investigating either the explosion or the conspiracy. He is utterly inept at investigation and continually places himself and his colleagues in danger needlessly, yet his impotency is dwarfed by the unbelievable inefficiency of the covert group signified by the white whale. The syndicate are effectively reduced to hired thugs rather than efficient spies, who even display street signs highlighting that they are in residence – in crowded public areas no-less. Supervising the group is a mysterious man in a suit who, bizarrely, sits at a desk in an empty room the size of an entire floor in a building. Such a cliche again adds nothing to the threat apparently posed by the covert operatives who consistently appear unsure of their next move, from the illogical indecision to not ‘eliminate’ the reporters to seemingly random discussions regarding exploding planes and nuclear armament.

Rival Jin-gi joins the team using his own informants

Rival Jin-gi joins the team using his own informants

In terms of character Moby Dick has a highly skilled assortment of actors that are unfortunately never given adequate screen-time or dramatic scenes in which to display their skill. Hwang Jeong-min is noteworthy in this respect as he has little opportunity to perform his talents, as Bang-woo is a shockingly ignorant protagonist who is also very rude and unlikeable. Quite how he isn’t killed by the organisation immediately after emerging as a threat requires genuine suspension of disbelief, although the incompetency of the covert operatives helps in this regard. Instead the violence seems reserved purely for Kim Sang-ho as Son Jin-gi who is beaten and tortured, which appears to be his only function in the narrative. Furthermore Kim Min-hee is incredibly underutilized as Hyo-gwan, conveniently appearing when the screenwriters are in need of someone or something to propel the stalled narrative forward. The same criticism also applies to Jin Goo as Yoon Hyeok who could have functioned as a Jason Bourne figure, yet after his initial purpose of providing classified documents he strangely fades into the background. All the actors do the best they can in such limiting roles, yet the absence of character development and the lack of cohesion between them is detrimental to them all.

Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Verdict:

Moby Dick is a squandered opportunity, with talented actors and a fantastic premise that are let down through a narrative that lacks direction and focus. While it is generally competently directed, there is unfortunately no escaping the narrative inconsistencies, absence of character development, or lack of threat posed by the shadow operatives, all of which require a real leap in the suspension of disbelief in order for Moby Dick to remain plausible – or, for that matter, enjoyable.

★★★☆☆

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Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Moss (이끼) – ★★★★☆

Moss (이끼)

Moss (이끼)

The corruption of the ruling elite is certainly nothing new in Korean cinema. After years of military dictatorships and scandalous corporate backhanders, it’s clearly understandable why such themes are continuously prevalent. However these narratives often approach from a reactionary perspective, highlighting the suffering of those victimized by injustices. Little explored are the foundations of a community, the roles and interplay of law, religion, power, crime and punishment in the creation of a society. Such Shakespearean motifs are traditionally reserved for period dramas, yet Kang Woo-seok’s (강우석) Moss (이끼) wonderfully examines the labyrinthine networks of power in a contemporary village in Gangwon province. Based on the incredibly popular internet comic, Moss is an exhilarating and fresh addition to the thriller genre.

While struggling against a law suit, Ryoo Hae-gook (Park Hae-il (박해일) receives news that his estranged father, Yoo Mok-hyeong (Heo Joon-ho (허준호), has died. Visiting the estate, Hae-gook is surprised to learn of his late father’s role as one of the elder statesmen of the village, yet merely wishes to resolve  any outstanding affairs and return to his life in Seoul. However Hae-gook’s curiosity is piqued when his father’s partner, the powerful village foreman Cheon Yong-deok (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영) and his three right-hand men – Kim Deok-cheon (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), Jeon Seok-man (Kim Sang-ho (김상호), and Ha Seong-gyoo (Kim Joon-bae (김준배) – continually attempt to persuade him to leave.  As Hae-gook digs deeper into the mystery of his father’s death and the strange behaviour of the residents, he must confront the disturbing truth about the village and its inhabitants.

The residents of the village are not all they seem

The residents of the village are not all they seem

Screenwriter Jeong Ji-woo (정지우) has translated the web-comic to film with incredible skill, lacing each protagonist with depth and nuance – as well as fully realised character arcs – that makes each confrontation compelling viewing. This is remarkable as the 163 minute running time may seem excessive, but the narrative is so fueled with suspense and the protagonists so fascinating that the time is hardly noticeable. The plot is the epitome of labyrinthine, carefully taking time to construct the scenario through flashbacks and the creation (and breakdown) of relationships through subtle character defining events. Director Kang Woo-seok is impressive in visualizing such dense material, from the intimidating fortress overlooking the village to the claustrophobic subterranean tunnels. Praise should also be bestowed upon the set design, lighting and editing departments, who display ingenuity in creating the tension-filled world of Moss.

The actors are also wonderful in bringing the community of Moss alive. Park Hae-il is excellent as the idealistic Hae-gook who is continually involved in events beyond his understanding, while his nemeses – Yoo Hae-jin, Kim Sang-ho and Kim Joon-bae – are incredibly unnerving and intense in portraying the criminal classes/extensions of power. However, the most exceptional performance belongs to Jeong Jae-yeong, who is loud, violent and ambitious as a young man, but silently commands respect as an elder. The sheer intensity conveyed through his expressions is amazingly sinister, demanding obedience with merely a glance. The weakest link is Yoo Seon as store owner Lee Yeong-ji through no fault on her part, as her role is virtually forgotten until the third act when her presence is suddenly elevated into a lead protagonist.

Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Thematically, Moss is also a triumph. The portrayal of corruption seemingly endemic with the ruling elite is hardly original, but Moss strives to explore all areas in the creation of a society, notably the role of religion. As such, the village in Moss acts as a microcosm for society, and how the younger generation must fight against the greed of their elders. Yong-deok, the village foreman, was a corrupt police officer in his youth but his ambition for power was continually unfulfilled. That is, until he met Mok-hyeong, a man with a violent past that had apparently found redemption through religion who was quickly amassing followers. The jealousy for power and influence ultimately fuels their relationship, yet both are keenly aware that alone they can achieve little. In joining forces to create a community both men have similar intentions but are ideologically opposed, as they wish to exert dominance over others but through different means. Each man is clearly representative of the ideological vie for power in society, and the process in which they become increasingly more corrupt is as organic as it is alarming. There is rather blatant bias however, as Mok-hyeong’s Christian ideology is constantly  represented as inherently ‘good’ which diminishes the exploration somewhat.

In discovering the sinister origins of the village, Hae-gook is representative of the younger generation that must reveal and persecute such greed. Hae-gook studies old books and documents, finds subterranean tunnels, and must even join forces with an enemy in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. As a young divorcee, Hae-gook embodies the change in society as the shift away from tradition becomes ever more apparent. His naivety and idealism is endearing but simultaneously foolhardy, as he continually fails to understand the larger events at hand.

The young and idealistic Hae-gook must face the old and corrupt Yong-deok

The young and idealistic Hae-gook must face the old and corrupt Yong-deok

Verdict:

Moss is a incredibly well executed thriller that delves into Shakespearean themes of the vie for power amongst the ruling classes. The interplay of different features of society, from religion to the criminal classes, constructs a dense tale of suspense that highlights the unfairness, and the generational differences, within a culture and emphasizes the importance of prosecuting the corrupt. The bias nature in representing Christianity, and the under-developed female role slightly detract from the viewing experience, but despite this Moss is a highly entertaining and compelling foray into corruption in contemporary Korea.

★★★★☆

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