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There is an opinion in some quarters that violence and comedy cannot go hand in hand...
There is an opinion in some quarters that violence and comedy cannot go hand in hand. Yet in some movies they can, and that's what director Sin Han-sol seems to have had in mind when he sharpened the plot for "Art of Fighting" (Ssaumui gisul).
This is the kind of movie where viewers laugh occasionally and grimace the rest of the time. But the title is somewhat misleading. It is neither a serious martial arts movie nor a full-blown comedy.
The reason for the film's ambivalent identity lies largely in the equally confusing characteristics of Oh Man-su, a "legendary fighter." The character is played by Baek Yoon-sik, a veteran actor whose popularity is literally soaring among Korean moviegoers after showing off his renewed vigor as a notorious swindler in "The Big Swindle," a 2004 hit movie directed by Choi Dong-hoon.
In "Art of Fighting," Baek turns into a sort of hermit-cum-fighter who seems both a hero and a villain. His fighting skills appear relentless
even profound - and yet his way of teaching his skills seems a total
sham. He acts seriously and yet the very seriousness makes it all the more funny. Of course, the disparate features stand out dramatically largely due to the peculiar image forged by actor Baek. Kudos to Baek's overall charismatic acting. His subtle, knowing smile, for instance, is irresistibly charming and playful though he's actually 58, and even his "I'm-not-very-sorry" farting parade in a steamy sauna room is fiercely dramatic.
The only drawback, unfortunately, also results from director Shin's heavy dependence on the personal charms of Baek. Other characters are sidelined, and even the storyline itself is less meaningful than the director has originally intended.
The story revolves around the mentor-and-protégé format. Mentor Oh Man-su is a mysterious man who happens to stay in a room at a shabby reading room where Korean students pay to study for exams. Song Byeong-tae (Jae Hee) is a fragile high school boy whose primary goal in life is not to be beaten at school - at least not that much.
Byeong-tae is the undisputed living punching bag for his friends, who could otherwise be described as ruthless bullies. Never a day passes without him getting punched and kicked by his classmates.
Byeong-tae attempts to find a breakthrough by faithfully attending a martial arts school and furiously reading martial arts books. But the fighting instinct does not harden in Byeong-tae's heart which is easily scared, even by the hint of a punch.
A glimmer of hope, Byeong-tae thinks, can be found in the mysterious man Man-su, who emits some inexplicable aura of a fighting master, though he usually spends away his time reading comic books.
Byeong-tae uses all the tricks he knows to become Man-su's student, but the master is not a person you can buy with simple begging. Byeong-tae, it turns out, has to offer money - lots of it - to get the lessons.
"Hey, you got money? You know, you need lots of money to become a fighter. Just how much money you need if you break your enemy's tooth? Fighting is a costly business," Man-su says, with an earnestness sparking in his playful eyes.
Byeong-tae has no other option. So he pays for his master's lunch and does other sundry work, which Man-su says is part of a special program.
And other training starts in a bewildering fashion that only fits in with an unabashed comedy. Man-su reveals his secret of maintaining powerful stamina: he steals a bottle of milk on the street while jogging. Man-su's unique reasoning: "In life, there is no such thing as 'that is yours and this is mine.'" His innocent and faithful student follows the master's stern instruction - "Spare the milk, spoil the child." Byeong-tae steals the milk bottle but sooner rather than later he gets caught by the delivery men. He gets beaten by the angry delivery men. Indeed, Byeong-tae beefs up his strength by continuing to steal the milk and also continuing to get thrashed.
Another of Man-su's special skills is throwing a coin to enemies a la Jang Chong-chan, a main character in the 1980s series "Human Market" by novelist Kim Hong-shin. Man-su showcases the trick by targeting a spot on the wall and actually hitting the zone with razor-sharp precision.
In the actual fighting with his school bullies, Byeong-tae smiles and finally throws the 500-won coin at his arch-rival. The coin indeed hit the target - a deserted bottle nearby, not the real enemy. While the bullies are approaching, Byeong-tae is about to try again, but all the coins he has suddenly drop on the ground. The result: he gets smacked hard.
So many violent scenes are inserted into the supposedly comic movie that the filmmakers had a hard time getting the rating for 15-year-olds or older. Although the director intended to reflect his critical view of such violent-laden school culture, it is still a matter of dispute whether the realistic fighting scenes are gratuitous.
The clue is the dictum that fighting master Man-su dispenses for Byeong-tae is, "The real art in fighting is winning it without actually fighting with your enemy." The same rule can be applied to the movie itself. Perhaps, if the movie had criticized violence without indulging in too much violence, it might have been the real art of film-making.
By Yang Sung-jin
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