I have included a couple of South Korean films in my consideration of kung fu/martial arts movies thus far in my endeavor to become more aware of the genre, although the two films in question, The Man from Nowhere and my most recent viewing of Punch Lady are indicative of a revisionist approach to the genre, one that applies social issues while only tangentially being related to whatever stylistic tropes and themes are emergent within the genre. Of course, while I found myself initially surprised by this choice, I also remember that it is very much an element of South Korean and to a larger extent much of the East Asian cinema output, to take genre and use it as a means to cleverly consider poignant social woes, whether it be the use of a wrestling calamari to look at masculinity and performance in the eponymous Calamari Wrestler, or a scathing critique of othering non-heterosexual bodies as occurs in Memento Mori. Punch Lady, in the guise of a fighting/boxing movie manages to take on the very controversial topic of spousal abuse, while also considering a larger issue of violence as spectacle and the consumption of such brutality as a means of escapism. While on the whole Punch Lady does not always succeed in its message or methodology, it does manage to do one thing that is worth high note, by employing a female lead into a world of cinema that while visceral, incredibly watchable and currently the most essential in the world, still proves to be heavily dominated by patriarchal privilege and masculine issues. The parts of this film that do work, do so on a highly engaging level and manage to add fresh looks and styles to the boxing film, which has arguably been perfected in the way of Scorsese's Raging Bull or more recently in the post-modern look at the sport in David O. Russell's The Fighter. As noted though, Punch Lady is only a boxing movie to a degree, instead, existing as a social commentary first and genre film second, resulting in a film whose narrative is certainly winding and twisting, but in relative consideration to the countries other works it is considerably straight forward and accessible on, at the very least, a cinematic and visual level.
Punch Lady focuses on a woman named Ha-eun (Ji-Won To) who has always had a viscerally disconcerting experience with violence since she witnessed her father beating a thief when she was a child. This unusual relationship with violence has led her to become involved in a violent relationship with her professional fighter husband Joo-Chang (Park Sang-wook) who beats and attacks Ha-eun for reasons that are completely inexcusable. Ha-eun, however, seems content to just bear the attacks, until one day the couple's daughter Choon-sim (Sulli) confronts Joo-Chang, leading to his throwing a bowl at the young girl causing her to bleed. The resulting rage felt by Ha-eun leads her to attack Joo-Chang with a frying pan, thus knocking him unconscious. Despite his constant physical attacks, Joo-Chang is audacious enough to sue Ha-eun for spousal abuse, leading to a brief stint in jail. When she gets out of jail, Ha-eun moves in with an old friend and briefly considers rekindling a relationship with an old high school fling, however, when she discovers that this former lover is himself a professional kick boxer, she is hesitant, particularly considering that he is to fiht Joo-Chang and claims that he will act as a vessel of revenge for Ha-eun. When the fight does occur, Joo-Chang does not hesitate to fight dirty and through cheating kills the man, leading to a new level of rage in Ha-eun who during her blind fury demands that the two fight one another, much to the confusion of Joo-Chang and his promoters. Yet when it becomes clear that the fight will result in huge viewership and sponsorship possibilities a planned bout for three months later emerges. Ha-eun knowing that her martial arts skills are limited, if not non-existent, goes about finding a trainer in Su-Hyeon (Son Hyun-Joo) a math teacher whose recent acquisition of a old dojo is only to turn it into a nursery. However, upon the begging and prodding of Ha-eun, along with her promise to share a considerable amount of the prize money, Su-Hyeon agrees and begins a considerably unorthodox training program. There are various attempts on the part of Joo-Chang and others to stifle the fight prior to its occurrence, but as Hae-eun evolves in her self-worth things grow and her desire to prove so to Joo-Chang and all others who have been abused, results in the fight occurring, and the results being a surprise to all involved, including, most importantly, Hae-eun.
I mention that this film does not entirely deal with the spousal abuse elements in a positive and non-problematic manner and most of this criticism comes directly from the unfortunate choice of the director to situation the middle section of the film as fully comedic. Doing so, at times, negates the very serious book ends of the film that graphically deal with the bruises and physical suffering experienced by a person who is a victim of domestic violence. Now I understand that the producers probably hoped to avoid a completely dejecting experience for viewers, especially since the people involved, aside from the director, seem previously engaged in the decidedly upbeat world of Korean drama. Nonetheless, shying away from the jarring and abject seems unusual for a South Korean film when one considers the films made by Chan-wook Park or Kim-ki Duk, both of who use violence extensively and comedy sparingly. It is really off-putting to see moments of Ha-eun's training played up as humorously exhaustive, when only moments earlier her body was on display as a thing of inhumanity to be beaten into submission in a non-comedic form of exhaustion. This is where the film goes completely in the wrong direction, but it does manage to do things correctly, particularly in its acknowledgement that the act of abuse often extends beyond the physical. Indeed, Joo-Chang is an absolutely evil and terrible person, exploiting all of those around him merely to assert his own disgusting hyper-masculinity, killing a person for suspecting that he might be involved with his wife of which he violently beats. However, Joo-Chang also looks at Ha-eun as an object of verbal ridicule referring to her as stupid and less than human, thus becoming a form of psychological abuse, not to mention his own role as an economic provider, threatening both Ha-eun and her daughter with making their lives worse by having no money, one of the more scathing criticisms in the film as South Korean society still manages to be highly impossible to navigate for a single woman, particularly one who is in her thirties or older. Finally, the film deals with the absurdity of spectacle and deconstructs a society, particularly one that has capitalist and democratic ideals for allowing the reality of domestic violence serve as a spectator sport, when indeed it should be a thing that is dealt with in the most serious of manners through the legal system. Sure the film plays up the possibility of a spousal boxing match, but think about any domestic violence case that makes national headlines, even in America, the rhetoric is uncannily similar.
Key Scene: The "eye-opening" scene for Ha-eun is a perfectly simultaneous execution of acting, cinematography and editing that manages to make the last act flow with a considerable degree of intensity.
This film is somewhat hard to come by and the current DVD is a bit dodgy, often freezing due to being a bad transfer. As such, I would actually suggest seeking out another of the directors works My Wife Is A Gangster, for a rewarding viewing experience.