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Original Title:
Ssaum-ui gisul

South Korea 2006

Drama, Comedy

Shin Han-sol

Jae Hee
Baek Yun-shik
Choi Yeo-jin
Kim Eung-su

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The Art of Fighting

Story: Song Byung-tae (Jae Hee) occasionally has to change his residence because of his father, who is a cop. He does not have any friends and falls victim to a school gang. At some point Song is sick of getting beaten up again and again. He asks several experts for help and wants to be inducted into the secrets of martial arts, but he always comes across wanna-be fighters, who can't teach him anything.
The humiliation and the beating Byung-tae has to suffer from soon get unbearable. Especially the leader of the gang, Paco, is really cruel. Even Byung-tea's old friend, who's now at his school, too, can't change the fact, that Byung-tae is bullied day by day.
But one day, Byung-tae meets the ageing fighter Oh Man-su (Baek Yun-shik), who's only waiting for his papers to be done so that he can finally leave the country. After a lot of begging, Man-su finally gives in and agrees to train Byung-tae. The techniques he uses are as peculiar as the obscure man himself. But even when Byung-tae has gained enough skill and knowledge, he's still lacking something essential to be able to finally defend himself: self-confidence…

Review: "The Art of Fighting" is a tough nut to crack. Due to its stereotyped plot it is just too insignificant as a movie. The messages and wisdoms aren't very groundbreaking, either. In addition, this movie isn't a martial arts movie at all! Anyone who's expected something similar due to the title may as well stop reading right now. Even if there are some fights, they are kept in a more unspectacular tyical Korean boxing-style. Unfortunately, at the end the movie is kind of a disappointment as it holds out hope of being more than it actually is. This feeling is caused by the two leading actors, who give such a great performance that they somehow seem to be misplaced in this rather average flick.

Director Shin tells the typical story of a shy outsider, who's being bullied by his schoolmates. As the conditions on Korean schools are very strict and even teachers, who beat their pupils aren't uncommon, it is no wonder that the pitiful loser Byung-tae doesn't take long to win the audience's sympathy.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't succeed in portraying the subject of bullying in Korean schools in a homogeneous way. Mostly, the movie is supposed to be dramatic, but the story keeps being told with this kind of inconvenient type of humor, which gives the movie a somehow funny connotation, so that you can't take it seriously. In severe moments the movie even looses its importance because of this.

These funny scenes aren't really groundbreaking but after all they're quite nice. All those allusions to Martial-Arts Movies are done very well, for instance the fact that Byung-tae has to prove a lot of patience and will until Man-su finally gives in to be his teacher. Some training methods, too, like the laundry wringing, may remind you of some classics. Sadly, this also applies to the movie's messages. Winning without fighting is as familiar as a message as the fact that our "hero" can only come to peace when he does fight back, eventually.
The fighting itself is extremely violent, as Man-su shows us what it means to learn fighting in the street: arms are being broken, chopsticks are being used as weapons etc. There is no elegance or "art" in those fights. The title rather describes what Man-su really teaches: The art of fighting for survival. Especially this unconventional approach is quite appealing, but at the same time the humor cancels it out quite fast.

The already mentioned disunity gets pretty obvious at the end. Everything looks like an emotional and gritty ending, but then the movie makes a sudden turn and decides to go in a completely different direction. Why, nobody seems to know and therefore the viewer never really knows what he is supposed to expect. In addition there is this rather boring cinematography and those incredibly flat supporting characters, which add to the movie's negative image. Many persons don't seem to have any significant purpose at all but are introduced, all the same, like the girl who's being rescued by Man-su and Byung-tae. Furthermore, it wouldn't have mattered if the major part of the cast had been replaced by anybody else, as the characters are so stereotyped that it almost hurts.

But as said before, at least there is one ray of hope and that would be Baek Yun-shik ("Save the Green Planet!") to rank first. His portrayal of the elderly, oddly violent fighter, who has already been through a lot of things in his past and who has numerous scars to prove that, is just brilliant. The way he teaches his new pupil with his somehow strange attitude towards good and evil is real fun to watch. At the same time he manages to attract the audiences sympathy, as he always stays authentic and humane.
Jae Hee ("3-Iron") is pretty convincing, too, even though Baek outacts him quite often. He's rather quiet but still manages to portray his growing self-confidence credible in a subtle way.

"The Art of Fighting" falters in a lot of aspects. The story is the thousandth alternation of one and the same plot, an inconsistent funny-dramatic style destroys the movie's authenticity and even though it never seems to get boring, something really important doesn't happen either. The only thing that saves the movie from the "swamp of average" is Baek's (and Jae's) incredible performance. Whether or not this is enough reason to take a look at this movie, you'll have to decide for yourselves…

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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