Art of Fighting, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/24/06 23:17:23
SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's an old, old story - kid gets picked on, finds a mentor who can teach him how to defend himself, and later stands up for himself. Maybe, just maybe, the mentor learns a little bit about himself and becomes less of a recluse as a result. The audience can stand up and cheer, safe in the knowledge that things are going to get better.It's a pleasant enough fantasy, but not one with a lot of connection to reality. In real life, standing up to a bully often means that they escalate, either bringing in their friends or attacking those close to the target who can't easily defend themselves. There's no ring where things can be settled in a neutral, controlled environment. And a mentor who can teach you how to really fight in a manner that is effective, rather than just aesthetically pleasing, is generally someone you're better off not dealing with.
Such are the problems for Song Byung-tae (Lee Hyun-kyoon). His father recently had him transfered to a vocation school from an academically-oriented high school, reasoning that if Byung-tae isn't college-bound, he should learn a trade. Byung-tae has always been a target of bigger kids, but the worst apples at his new school are a quantum leap over what he's had to deal with before, and things just get worse when the bullies find out his father is a police officer. He spends most of his after-school time hiding out in a local study center until he encounters Oh Man-su (Baek Yun-shik), a disheveled middle-aged guy who doesn't look like much but makes a couple thugs regret trying to mug him. Byung-tae tries to get Oh to teach him how to fight, but the man refuses, on the grounds that violence isn't the answer to his problems. He eventually relents when he sees that violence certainly looks like a better answer than pacifism. But what Oh has to teach Byung-tae isn't specific techniques - it's being willing to fight dirty, to make sure that a guy who goes down stays down, and generally how to meet the bullies on their own terms.
Think The Karate Kid if Mr. Miyagi was the type to teach Daniel street fighting. There are other things going on - the main bully tormenting Byung-tae is working his way up in a gang, in part by threatening a young woman who owes the gang leader money; Man-su has criminal ties, too, clearly having reasons to keep a low profile; and a friend from Byung-tae's former school with a history of fighting transfers to his new one. They're all subplots in the most literal definition of the world, stories that theoretically matter to their participants but mainly contribute to how Byung-tae winds up dealing with his foes. This is a very straightforward, focused story.
And what it's focused on is ugly. Filmmaker Shin Han-sol and his co-writer Min Dong-hyun were reportedly inspired by the real and widespread problem of bullying in Korean films, and they make sure not to trivialize it. The beatings Byung-tae receives hurt to watch, and the make-up department assures that he spends the entire film clearly showing the effects of his injuries. The violence in this movie is uncomfortable to watch, and almost never becomes elegant or fanciful. Even a sequence where Byung-tae runs from one end of the school to another with his bullies in pursuit that in another movie might be a fun bit in another movie is tinged with clear "this is not a game" desperation. I found myself rather uncomfortable when Byung-tae finally got the chance to strike back, because it's not about settling the matter formally - it's doing to them what they did to him, without warning or quarter. I knew they had it coming, but usually the hero finds reasons not to give it to them. Shin and company have a very cynical view of the source and spread of violence, not offering a way to break the cycle and implying that it starts with the teachers' corporal punishment.
Despite the cynicism about society at large, the central relationship between Oh Man-su and Song Byung-tae is quite warm, thanks in large part to the two main actors. Both may be familiar from other recent Korean exports: Baek Yun-shik played the embittered KCIA director in The President's Last Bang, and here makes Man-su a charming scoundrel. He's unshaven and unkempt, seldom raising his voice; he even threatens people with a wry half-smile. When he comes off as crazy, it's not through raving, but an apparent lack of concern for consequences. Lee Hyun-kyoon gets the chance to express himself with words far more than he did as the silent wanderer in 3-Iron, but it's still his silences that speak loudest - whether it's a defeated sulk, not saying anything to his father because he just wouldn't understand or the cold determination to exact revenge.In the end, I found myself less than enamored despite all the things this film does well. The violence is so constant and unpleasant that even as I agreed that this sort of bullying was a problem and something should be done, I frequently wasn't entertained. Is that a success or a failure for this movie? I'm not sure.
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