Personally, I’ve always been a fan of coming of age stories. While they can be heart-wrenching, they can also make you laugh and take you back to a time when going through growing pains was anything but a joke. That’s why it was my pleasure to catch WANDEUKI (완득이) before it left the theater. This comedic drama, directed by Lee Han, has been a major hit in Korea since it’s October release and, while I don’t understand its staying power, I understand what most of the fuss is about. Based on the popular novel by Kim Yeo Ryung, WANDEUKI, or PUNCH by its American title, is the story of a high school boy and the struggles he has in his day to day life. It seems like director Han, who is known for making movies about modern romance, has decided to spread his wings and tackle an adaptation. A task which, in my opinion, he has successfully completed.
From the beginning we see that Do Wan Deuk is not your typical 17 year old boy. He lives with his father who’s a hunchbacked, out of work cabaret dancer and their mentally handicapped family friend Min Gu. To add on to that he lives next door to his eccentric and, in his mind, overbearing homeroom teacher, a man he constantly asks God to kill on a daily basis but who later winds up being his saving grace. Like many teenage boys Wan Deuk is broody and has a bad temper. He is always in trouble for fighting and has the lowest grades in the school. On the other hand he respects and takes care of his father and, for the most part, does what he is told. His world begins to open up when his homeroom teacher reunites him with his mother for the first time since he was an infant. He finds out that not only is his mom alive and in Korea but that she’s Filipino. Being the product of an interracial marriage isn’t as jarring for him as suddenly learning to live with a mother figure. The whole experience allows him to let go of some of his anger and enjoy the things that are good in his life.
On paper, WANDEUKI doesn’t seem like an interesting film. I read some reviews prior to going in and I agree with the general consensus that it’s a film that doesn’t really have any kind of build to a climax or a thrilling plot. The story moves along partly because of the clever script and partly because of the great performances. Yoo Ah In, who plays the title character, came across wonderfully as a young boy who has had to endure too many hard things in his short life. The strength of his performance put me in mind of a young Johnny Depp in WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Overall, he’s never been afraid to take risks with his roles and it doesn’t look like he plans to let his career be led by his pretty face. I hope to see more standout performances from him in the future. Kim Yoon Seok, who plays Wan Deuk’s teacher, is just plain fun to watch. You have no idea what is going to come out of his mouth or what he’s going to do next. Kim has a history of playing the smooth talking authoritative figure and he definitely boosted the watch-ability of this movie. The whole film made me bounce between laughter and tears but, even though I enjoyed watching it, I do have to admit that I am a bit baffled by its popularity. It’s been number one at the box office for weeks and its lack of a driving story makes it hard for me to understand its lasting appeal among viewers. Regardless, it’s one worth putting on your films to watch list for the season.
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