By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: October 17, 2007
Spousal abuse is not a new cinematic theme, but “Punch Lady” takes a fresh approach to the tricky issue by portraying the psychological trajectory of a battered Korean woman. The question is whether the likely climax — whatever triumph the victim will manage to get — meets viewers’ expectations in a swift manner, just like the bullet-speed punch of a professional fighter.
After all, this movie, the debut feature by Kang Hyo-jin, involves a professional K1 fighter, Ju-chang (Park Sang-woo), and his timid, shy, self-conscious 36-year-old wife Ha-eun (Do Ji-won). The opening is telling: the couple is engaged in a K-1 fight in the living room, with all the vicious tricks fully deployed … well, at least by the seemingly crazy husband. What is hard to understand, especially when the film is set in the 2000s, is why Ha-eun still sticks around this monstrous wife-beater.
The level of violence is almost unbearable. We see Ha-eun virtually flying over into the corner of the kitchen, with saucers and spoons scattered around. Bruises are all over her face and body, reflecting her tortuous daily routine. But, strangely, there’s nobody who wants to report this extreme domestic violence to the police.
There is one police report, though. When Ju-chang is about to hit his (rightly) rebellious daughter for no apparent reason, Ha-eun taps into her motherly instinct and hits him on the head from behind. Thanks to the ‘victimized’ husband’s formal complaint to authorities, Ha-eun is put behind bars. Strange as it is, nobody, including any police officers, cares about how such an incident happened in the first place; people pay little attention to all the apparent signs of a battered wife.
Defying logic, in a sense, is inevitable. The ultimate destination of the movie is a final showdown between the invincible husband and the suffering wife. So, details about domestic violence remain unexplained. For instance, there is no explanation about why Ju-chang is habitually beats up his wife, even though he almost always knocks down his counterparts on the K1 fighter stage, thus satisfying, at least partly, his animalistic instinct for destruction and victory.
Instead of offering more credible details, director Kang introduces a cinematic momentum that lacks, again, plausibility. It turns out that Ha-eun used to date a decent, kindhearted man. Some flashback scenes show that he really cares about Ha-eun, but she turns down his courtship attempts, without offering any reason. This is puzzling. If they were in love, and if she had to leave him somehow, even a small hint might come in handy, but the plot ignores this gaping hole, and chugs along to the expected turn where Ha-eun decides to take a new course in her life.
A tragic incident involving her old boyfriend prompts Ha-eun to rethink her miserable life, and she gets ready to confront her husband in a way that she never imagined in her lifetime — a live match on the K1 stage.
Challenged publicly by a feeble wife, Ju-chang shows off his confidence by announcing that he will use his right hand only in this match. A big disadvantage if he’s fighting a regular K1 fighter who has steeled himself through techniques from taekwondo, karate, kickboxing and traditional boxing. Not so with a housewife who knows nothing about such martial arts. What Ha-eun knows is that, since she has been beaten for so long, her husband’s punches are terribly lethal.
Despite the technical flaws and problems in the storytelling, Do Ji-won’s passionate performance deserves some credit. She has apparently practiced a lot — kicking and running — and her hard training adds much-needed sparks when the movie finally rushes toward its climax. And the climax might have been more satisfying if the film were a tad shorter than its exhausting 121-minute running time.