The Art of Fighting review: Bullying? Old fighting master? Laundry as training? Is this the secret Korean Karate Kid remake?
The Art of Fighting review, Luke Ryan Baldock at the London Korean Film Festival.
The Art of Fighting is a film of many layers. Like so many Korean films, it twists something we are familiar with so that it is still recognisable but actually has a postmodern spin. Bullying is an important topic, and Shin Han Sol’s debut feature tackles the theme very well. The film actually starts with our protagonist being bullied, leaving any rhyme or reason out of the equation. It must be how it feels to be bullied in such a way, and we see the main character has even started entertaining the idea of defending himself before things get started.
Byung Tae (Jae Hee) is picked on everyday at his vocational academy, where his inspector father has sent him after Byung Tae failed to prove himself academically. Byung Tae tries to study fighting, but is constantly beaten and made to feel worthless. Even the arrival of his old school friend Jae Hoon (Park Ki Woong) does little to raise his spirits. Through a chance encounter, Byung tae meets a nameless older man (Baek Yoon Sik), whose fighting skills are more than impressive. He pleads with the man to train him, and once the man recognises Byung Tae’s spirit and circumstance he agrees to help. But the head bully Paco (Hong Seung Jin), may have gangster connections that involve Byung Tae’s new teacher.
The Art of Fighting is essentially a grittier Karate Kid, where skills may still be taught by mundane chores, but it’s taught by a mysterious man with gang connections. Fights are not choreographed ballets, but instead cruel and brutal punishments. Nobody looks elegant when dishing out or accepting punishment here, with weapons utilised, cheap shots thrown, and running away being a legitimate tactic, it makes for a story that’s easier to invest in and a protagonist who we can easily project onto: unless of course you are a martial arts master.
Such nastiness is found throughout, and humorously sometimes tries to pass itself off as a sports movie. There are inspiring talks and montage sequences with music, but it’s never glorified. Sure, we can feel excited and happy when Byung Tae has the upper hand, but it’s going to come back on him at some point. We feel the growth and appreciate his confidence, rather than celebrate his violent retribution, and that all comes down to director Shin Han Sol’s non-preachy style. When it does come back on Byung Tae and Jae Hoon, the performances of Jae Hee and Park are relentless, each one putting up a front for the other, while being moved by the other’s actions.
With a constant bittersweet sentiment, and a knowingly awkward message, The Art of Fighting speaks well to those whom may have been victimised, displaying a fantasy of justice, while also highlighting pitfalls of retaliation. With a bluesy score, and plenty of humour that derives from people under/overestimating their or their opponent’s ability, The Art of Fighting is the more realistic and scrappy fight movie. It’s Creed with no sense of honour or pride, while still finding Byung Tae’s heart, soul, and pain.
The Art of Fighting review by Luke Ryan Baldock. The film screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2016.